The sliding glass door rattled open, and there he was.
How many times had she dreamed of seeing him again, of hearing him say her name that way?
He stepped out of the cabin and moved closer. She had thought of him so often, pored over his senior picture until every inch of his face was imprinted on her memory, so she saw instantly how much he had changed. He was taller, and his shoulders were broader, even as he’d lost weight. He had on a ripped gray T-shirt that said USC and a pair of khaki shorts that hung low on his narrow hips. His face was sculpted and lean. He wasn’t as heart-stoppingly handsome as he’d been before; he had a hard, tired look to him, and his eyes were sad.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” he said.
“I didn’t think you’d be here.”
“I didn’t think you’d be here.”
Was there accusation in his voice? She reminded herself that he’d let her down, that their daughter was unhappy living with him, but it couldn’t quite grab hold, that emotion. As always, when she saw him, a part of her melted. It was her great weakness—he was her weakness and had been from the moment she’d first seen him. But she knew better now. He’d let her go to prison and let her give up custody of their daughter. “I needed to see Grace … needed to know that she was happy.”
The gravity that had always connected them exerted its force, and before she knew it, she was moving toward him. It wasn’t until she was close enough to be held by him that she realized he hadn’t moved toward her. He had stayed where he was and let her come to him. Of course.
“Why are you here?” he said.
“I had to see my daughter.”
“Yes.” Lexi swallowed hard. She’d imagined this reunion a thousand times, a million, and never had it been so awkward, so seething with loss and distance. She wanted to ask him about Grace, ask if her daughter was like her at all, but she couldn’t do it, couldn’t hand him her heart in those few words. It was a mistake she’d made before.
He stared down at her. She could feel the heat from his body, and the soft exhalations of his every breath. “She makes a little whistling noise when she sleeps—just like you do. Used to, I mean.”
Lexi didn’t know how to respond. Of course he knew what was on her mind; he’d always known what she was thinking. She was breathing faster now; so was he, she noticed. She stared at his mouth and remembered how he’d looked when he smiled, and how much they used to laugh, and she felt the loss all over again.
“You never answered my letters.”
“What would have been the point?” she said to him. “I thought we’d be better off if we just forgot each other. And those first two years in prison were … hard.”
“I used to think about you all the time.”
Used to. She swallowed hard, shrugged.
He touched her upper arm in a tentative, careful way, as if he were afraid she would either break or scream, or maybe he thought she wouldn’t want him so close. She stood there, staring up at him, realizing with a start that she wanted him to kiss her.
She stumbled back from him, needing distance between them. She’d been an idiot to get this close. From the moment they’d met, she’d given him her heart. How could she not have learned anything after all that had happened? “You let me go to prison,” she said to remind herself who he really was.
“I had no choice.”
“Believe me, Zach, you’ve always had choices. I’m the one who didn’t.” She took a deep breath and looked up at this boy—man—she’d loved from the first time she saw him, and the pain of their past was overwhelming. “I want Grace,” she said evenly. “I filed the papers today.”
“I know you hate me,” he said. “But don’t do that to Grace. She won’t understand. I’m all she has.”
“No,” Lexi said. “That’s not true anymore.” She heard a car drive up, tires spin on gravel, and she had no doubt about who had arrived.
Jude. Sweeping in to save her son and granddaughter from terrible Lexi.
“Good-bye, Zach,” Lexi said, turning away.
“No, Zach,” she said without looking at him. “I’ve waited long enough.”
* * *
Jude was shaking as she strapped Grace into her car seat.
“Sorry,” Jude mumbled. A headache had spiked behind her eyes, and she could hardly see. She texted Miles to get home ASAP and then climbed into the driver’s seat. But she couldn’t go home. Lexi knew where they lived.
“How come I’m goin’ home early, Nana?” Grace said from the backseat. “Was I bad again?”
Home. That was it.
She drove—too fast—to Zach’s cabin and parked beside his truck. Once there, she took Grace in her arms and hurried inside, slamming the door shut behind her.
The sliding glass door was open. The whole place smelled of the beach at low tide. Zach stood on the deck, looking out at the Sound.
Jude carried Grace into her bedroom and put her down on her bed. Handing her a well-worn copy of Green Eggs and Ham, she said, “Read this for just a minute, okay? I have to tell your daddy something, and I’ll be right back.”
Jude left the room and closed the door behind her. Then she went out to the deck and approached her son. She could tell by his stance—his shoulders rounded in defeat, his hands plunged deep in his pockets—what had happened. She hadn’t gotten here in time. “Lexi was here,” she said bitterly.
“She wants another chance, but we don’t get one. Mia will always be gone. I can’t look at the girl who killed her every day.”
Zach looked at her. “Grace is her daughter, Mom.”
The simplicity of that made Jude catch her breath. She felt suddenly as if she were hurtling toward a precipice, as if they all were. It scared her to her bones; in the past years, they’d healed just enough to survive. They couldn’t go through it again.
She’d watched from a distance as her immature, coltish boy had become a man. Grief had shattered him; fatherhood had put him back together.
She flipped open her cell phone and called the friend who had been their lawyer for years. “Bill. Jude Farraday. The girl who killed Mia is out of prison, and she’s filed a petition to get custody of Grace … tomorrow? Great. See you then.” Jude hung up the phone.
“Grace is unhappy,” Zach said, and the heartbreak in his voice was terrible.
“Lexi isn’t the answer, Zach. She’s the cause. Remember that.” Jude touched his arm. He needed her to be strong now. Maybe he’d needed that for years and not had it, but she would be there for him now; this time she would protect him.
The next morning, Jude woke up early and dressed carefully.
“It’s not a funeral,” Miles said when he saw her in the kitchen.
“Really? It feels like one. I’ll meet you in the car,” she said, hurrying away from him. The last thing she wanted to hear right now was his moral superiority or more endless questions about what they were doing. Of course, the Zen Master wanted to explore the idea that bringing Lexi into their lives could heal them. Last night, when they’d gotten home from Zach’s, she’d actually told him to shut up for the first time in their marriage.
He’d learned his lesson, apparently, because he said nothing as they picked up Grace at kindergarten, dropped her off at the Silly Bear, and drove into Seattle.
At one o’clock, Zach joined them in the lobby of the Smith Tower, and by ten past, they were seated in a corner office that overlooked Elliott Bay and Pine Island. From this vantage point, the island was a mound of thick green forests floating on a steel blue sea; it looked uninhabited.
“Scot had the petition delivered to my office,” Bill said when they’d finished with the pleasantries. “Alexa Baill is seeking to modify the parenting plan in which Zach has full custody.”
“She wants to take Grace away from me?” Zach asked, sitting very still. “She thinks I’ve been a bad father?”
“No, actually. She is seeking joint custody,” Bill answered.
“How can she do that?” Jude asked. “She gave up custody when Grace was born.”
“Parenting plans are rarely set in stone, Jude. In this case, Alexa will need to show a substantial change in circumstances—which getting out of prison certainly provides.”
“So what will happen?” Zach asked.
“First, we’ll have what’s called an adequate-cause hearing, which establishes only that her circumstances have changed enough to move forward. Next comes the motion for a temporary order. This will establish the custody or visitation rights pending trial. Realistically, it will be at least a year before we actually go to trial. A guardian ad litem will be appointed by the court to determine what the best interests of the child are and to represent Grace’s interests.”
“It sounds expensive,” Miles said. “How can she afford that?”
“Probably a Legal Aid lawyer. Or someone might handle the case pro bono,” Bill said.
“At best she’ll get visitation rights; at worst, joint custody. Know this, though: the court will be pushing for reunification with the mother unless she’s clearly unfit or poses a danger to Grace.”
“You’re saying she’ll be a part of our lives forever,” Jude said.
“She already is,” Miles answered. “She’s Grace’s—”
“I wasn’t speaking to you,” Jude hissed at her husband. To their lawyer, she said, “But she is unfit. She abandoned Grace at birth and never even sent her a birthday card. She has no job, no family around here. Her own mother was a felon and a drug addict. Who’s to say what friends she made in prison? We wouldn’t want Grace exposed to people like that.”
“Mom,” Zach said, straightening. “Come on. That’s not even fair. Lexi is nothing like her mother.”
“You have to fight her on this,” Bill said, giving Zach a steely look. “You’re a father now. Not a high school kid. Your job is to protect Grace; to do that, you need to preserve your rights. If Alexa got custody, even partial, who is to say she wouldn’t take off with Grace? And she made a choice, as I understand it. She’s never communicated with Grace. Not once. That doesn’t exactly give me a warm and fuzzy feeling about her parenting. We have to do what’s in your daughter’s best interest. At least for now, we have to keep her away from Grace.”
“Absolutely,” Jude said.
“How is that in Grace’s best interests?” Zach said. “Lexi is her mother.”
Bill opened a file. “I’ll tell you how it’s in her best interests. I’ve read Alexa’s prison record, Zach, and it’s not pretty. There are reasons she served an extra six months. Fighting. Not following the rules. She was found buying drugs in prison more than once. Valium, I believe, among others. You know who she was, Zach, but prison changes people, and it looks like your Alexa made some bad choices there. You don’t know her anymore. Do you really think Grace is safe around a person like that?”