The ride was a long and lonely one. But no lonelier than the little brick house waiting at the end of his journey. Lonely not because it sat by itself—it was surrounded on both sides by identical little brick houses—but because the worst and loneliest years of his life had been spent within its walls.
He hadn’t told his mom he was coming. Whether she’d be surprised, delighted, disgusted…he honestly had no f**king clue. It felt a little strange to knock on the door of the house he’d grown up in, but it wasn’t home anymore. So he did. And waited.
The door opened. Whether it was surprise, delight or disgust he saw on his mother’s lined face, he couldn’t say, because her expression didn’t change at all.
She looked old. She looked bad. He forced a smile for her regardless of his less than warm reception. “Hi, Mom.”
“It’s a mess around here,” she said by way of greeting, backing away from the door so he could enter. She shuffled along slowly, as if she were in pain. “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have picked up a bit.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, stepping inside and getting swamped with a thousand memories from the smell alone. Not an unpleasant smell to the senses, just one he equated with misery. The house wasn’t a mess at all, actually—it was as tidy as that old bastard had always insisted it must be. But since Earl had never been pleased with it, and she’d listened to him bitch about it for years, of course she would think it was too messy. Nothing was ever good enough.
“Coffee?” she asked, ambling toward the kitchen.
He followed, his boots clomping against the linoleum. “Sure.”
She put on a pot, and he struggled for something to say as he watched her birdlike hands work. A lot of people told him he was a quiet guy. Well, she was the genetic culprit. Her voice was soft and slow, and he didn’t think he’d ever heard it raised in his life. Yeah, that had been a major source of contention for them. There had been times as a kid he’d needed it raised in his defense. He’d had to learn to raise his own.
“What brings you out?” she asked, and when he saw she was having trouble reaching up to the cabinet, he went to her side and helped her.
“I had some news I wanted to tell you,” he said, pulling down a couple of chipped mugs. One of them he actually remembered from his childhood. Yeah. Its mate had shattered against the wall by the refrigerator. At least it hadn’t been over his head.
“Oh? Good news, I hope.” For the first time, a ghost of a smile flitted across her face. A gray tendril escaped from behind her ear, and she tucked it back.
“I suppose it is. I think so, anyway. It seems I’m gonna be a dad.”
The cup she’d been holding clattered to the counter, but he wasn’t sure if it was due to his words or her clumsy, arthritic fingers. He reached for it, but she quickly righted it. “Well, imagine that,” she said, and again he couldn’t get a clear read on her feelings.
“Unexpected, I know. I sure didn’t plan on it, anyway.”
She took the carafe from the coffeemaker and began to pour.
He’d thought he might get more of a reaction. She was all alone. He was her only child; her husband was dead. Wouldn’t a grandchild make her happy? Frustration burned in his chest, and when he took the steaming cup from her, he couldn’t drink the contents for the tightness in his jaw. “Anyway. Thought you’d like to know,” he said at last, hearing that same tightness in his voice. “Thought at least a congratulations might be in order.”
“Congratulations,” she said, and that only pissed him off more.
“Mom, are you gonna blame me forever?”
“You know damn well what.” He tried to block out the images, but they rushed in anyway. He and Earl yelling at each other, as usual. “You lay one hand on my mother, you sonofabitch, and I’ll put you through the goddamned wall.” Nothing he hadn’t said a dozen times before, once he’d gotten big enough to actually back up his words with actions if he wanted. But that time had been different. In the middle of Earl’s screamed reply, he’d gurgled, clutched his chest and keeled over.
Dead almost instantly, right at Ian’s feet. His mother even then had been terrifyingly quiet as she’d looked at Ian with huge eyes…and accused him of killing him before bolting for the phone.
“What do you want me to say, Ian?”
He took a huge breath to try to clear the ugliness from his mind. But there was no getting it out. That ugliness oozed from the shadows in this house. It was in the smell—even the scent of the brewing coffee. Earl had drunk it constantly when he wasn’t hitting something harder. Ian couldn’t grab hold of one pleasant memory from all the days he’d lived here. Surely there had been a few, but they were so far outweighed by the bad as to be inconsequential. “I thought you’d be happy.”
“Why? You come here and tell me about a grandchild I’ll never get to see, probably never get to hold. How is that supposed to make me happy?”
For all he knew, he might not get to see and hold him or her either, at least not as often as he’d like to. It all depended on what Gabby decided. “It doesn’t have to be that way with us.”
“You’ll make it that way.”
“I’ve told you. I don’t have anything against you. You shouldn’t have anything against me. All that…is in the past.”
“But you left. When I needed you most, you left.”
“You never acted like you needed me at all. You were relieved when I moved out in the first place. I wasn’t around to get you in trouble with Earl anymore.” He walked an agitated circle around the small kitchen while she stood and sipped her coffee. “I can guarantee you this: no child of mine would have ever stepped in this house while he lived here.”
“That’s a horrible thing for you to say.”
“He was a horrible person, in case you’ve forgotten this.” He indicated his scar with a flick of his hand.
“I’ll never forget that. I’ll remember that the rest of my days and probably beyond.”
“So will I.” He sighed and took his former place near her at the counter. “Like I said, though. I don’t want it to be that way with us. I’m excited about this baby, really. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the mother, but she’s great. I’d love to have a future with her. I can’t help but feel like it’s an opportunity to set things right in my life, you know? It’s like there’s this tiny clean slate on the way to me. Like I get to vicariously start all over.”
She nodded. “Good, good. You deserve that.”
“And I do want you to be a part of it. I hope you understand why I had to leave. I spent so much of my life worried about you here with him. Once he was gone, I had to make my own life. There’s no reason you can’t do that too.” She didn’t even act as if she could hear him. He resisted the urge to shout, the old frustration reaching deep inside to choke his pounding heart. “Why don’t you leave this hellhole? Come with me. I’ll help you any way I can.”
“I’ve waited too late to make a life,” she said, a bitter twist to her lips. Her faded blue eyes were cold as her gaze lifted to his. “But I wish you the best of luck with yours.”
Gabriella stared down at her toes embedded in the sand, then looked out over the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The surf tumbled in and rushed back out, pulling the sand from under her feet…and wasn’t that a perfect analogy for how she felt right now.
The never-ceasing wind whipped her long hair behind her. She probably should have put it up, because it would be hell to deal with later, but she didn’t care.
Miles out over the water, the clouds were bruised and towering, and she could see the sheets of rain falling. Before long, they would probably have to escape into the condo.
She turned and headed back to where Kelsey lay sunbathing, big dark sunglass covering her eyes. They’d arrived yesterday after an almost ten-hour drive. “Looks like a storm’s coming in.”
“Oh yeah?” Kelsey sat up and adjusted her pink bikini top. Looking at her, Gabby had hope for retaining her figure after the ravages of pregnancy. Kelsey had bounced back in no time. And today, she’d been smart enough to pull her long hair back in a smooth bun.
“Maybe not for a while.” Gabby sat on the towel laid out next to her sister-in-law. They hadn’t said much about her situation since arriving. That really was fine with her. There wasn’t much to say anymore. She just wanted to relax and forget her problems for a couple of days.
No one knew she was here except her parents and Evan, who would naturally know his wife’s whereabouts. She hadn’t told Ian she was leaving. Maybe she should have. It was strange to have to think about including someone else in all of her decisions, but she was carrying around something precious to him too.
“Do you think I should’ve told Ian I was leaving?”
So much for not talking about it.
“Well,” Kelsey said thoughtfully, “you have autonomy, you know. Just because you’re pregnant with his kid doesn’t mean you’re his property.”
“Oh, I know that. Just out of common courtesy.”
Kelsey shrugged. “If you’re worried about it, then let him know.” She scoffed, tilting her chin minutely toward the water. “We’re being scoped out.”
Gabby glanced over to see a trio of guys walking past, giving them appreciative glances. Actually, appreciative was a nice way of putting it. Lecherous was more like it.
“Ugh,” Kelsey went on. “I always want to laugh at pathetic stuff like that. Like anyone could even think of being hotter than my husband.”
“Please, he’s my brother. Do not talk about his hotness to me.” She eyed the guys as they walked on past. Yeah, not a single one of them could dare to compete with Ian either. Suddenly, she missed him terribly. With his big, hard body next to her, she doubted any other man would dare risk his neck by checking her out.
Sighing, Gabby drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. Before long, she wouldn’t be able to sit in this position. The unrelenting wind continued to whip her hair into a humidity-frizzed mess. “I miss him,” she confessed.
“If you’re in love with the guy, just go for it.”
“I don’t know about love. I think it’s even scarier to go for it knowing I’m pregnant. There’s a child involved now. If we can’t make it work, then I’m not the only one who’ll get hurt this time.”
“Yeah, but you can’t think negatively either. If you do make it work, that’ll be great for my little niece.”
“Oh, it’s a girl?”
Kelsey grinned. “I’m hoping. A little girl would be so sweet. Evan and I talk about trying again, but I don’t know yet.”
“It seems none of us in this family really have to try. It just happens to us.” As soon as it was out, she regretted saying it, since it also alluded to Brian. She hoped Kelsey would miss it, but with her budding lawyer’s mind, no such luck.