The Forgetful Fiancée
The Forgetful Fiancée
"Deputy Rayburn? That woman at the hospital – she's awake and asking for you."
Kevin Rayburn's heart quickened. "Me?" he spoke into the radio. "How does she even know me?"
"Dunno. But I figured you'd want to know."
"I'll be right there."
Kevin turned onto the highway and accelerated toward Colby County Hospital. This was the first violent crime he'd had to deal with since moving to Hardyville, Colorado, less than a year ago, and it made his gut twist. He'd thought he'd left beatings and muggings behind in Chicago. Yet early this morning, he'd learned that a young woman had been found unconscious in a fast-food parking lot at the edge of town, her purse missing. One of the other deputies had taken the call, but since it was the biggest news in Hardyville all year, everyone was talking about it. The story had been especially intriguing because the unidentified woman had been clutching an infant, a baby boy who was unharmed in the attack.
When he arrived at the hospital, Kevin was directed to the second floor where the mystery woman was being cared for. He hoped she had a clear memory of what had happened. Whoever the jerk was who'd hit her on the head, Kevin intended to catch him and make it clear that violence wasn't tolerated in Hardyville. His hometown, just sixty miles from Colorado Springs, was a throwback, a former gold-rush town that had never gotten caught up in the hustle and bustle of ski resorts. It didn't even have a Starbucks, and Kevin liked it that way.
As Kevin approached the door to the woman's room, a feminine voice, sounding distressed, came from inside. "I don't understand this at all. Why am I so bloated? And what happened to my hair?"
That voice. It sounded just like…but it couldn't be. Tara Satterfield would never set foot outside Chicago, unless it was to visit New York. She wouldn't be caught dead in "the sticks," as she referred to any place with a population of under a million. And she most definitely wouldn't be traveling with a baby. He'd never met a woman less…maternal.
His heart ached, as it always did when he thought of Tara. Ruthlessly he pushed aside the memories that threatened to invade his peace of mind. Those were for later, when he was alone in his bed.
"Maybe Deputy Rayburn can shed some light on things," another female voice said soothingly.
Kevin knocked on the partially open door. "Someone call?"
He stepped into the room – and received the shock of his life. It was Tara. Even with a black eye and a fat lip, and with her blond hair cut short, the woman lying in the hospital bed was unmistakably his ex-girlfriend. He hadn't seen her in almost a year, since he'd so abruptly left Chicago.
"Oh, Kevin, thank God! What took you so long? Please, tell me what's going on."
The nurse, who'd been changing a bandage on Tara's arm, looked at Kevin. "You know her?"
"Yes, she's my – she's Tara Satterfield."
Looking lost and scared, Tara reached for him, and reflexively he bent over the bed and hugged her. The feel of her, the smell of her hair, brought those painful memories screaming back into his head. "Are you okay, sweetheart?" The endearment slipped out without effort.
"I think so. But how did I get here? Were we visiting your aunt?"
Kevin reluctantly released her. "You don't remember?"
"The last thing I remember is us going out to dinner with the Brinkmans. How long ago was that?"
Good Lord. Kevin barely remembered that dinner, but it was at least a year ago.
"Kevin?" Tara looked up at him with improbably green eyes. "Will you tell me what's going on? And what's with the khaki uniform?"
Before he could answer, his Aunt Debra waltzed into the hospital room, a scrunched-up blanket in her arms. Debra had raised Kevin after his parents died, and he loved her fiercely. She was also a volunteer at the hospital and the town busybody. "Well, well, I heard through the grapevine you were awake and kicking," Debra said to Tara, her curly red hair bobbing as she walked. "I'm sure you're anxious to see this young man." She plopped the blanket onto Tara's lap. That was when Kevin realized it wasn't just a blanket.
Tara looked at the sleeping baby as if it were an alien invader, making no move to touch it. "Excuse me? You must have the wrong room."
The nurse and Debra exchanged worried looks. "Dearheart," the nurse said, "this is definitely your baby. At least, he was with you when you were found."
Tara looked to Kevin for help. "Tell them, Kevin. Tell them there's been a mistake."
Kevin was as shocked as Tara. He'd known the mystery woman had been found with a baby, but he'd forgotten about that once he'd realized the woman was Tara. The child appeared to be about three months old, which left Kevin with an inescapable conclusion: He was a father. Tara had borne him a child, though she hadn't seen fit to tell him about it.
Tara felt like she was in the middle of some weird dream. She could make out every eyelash of the strange child the social worker had put in her lap; she could smell the antibiotic ointment the nurse had just applied to the scrape on her arm. But as hard as she tried, she couldn't remember how she had gotten to this hospital room in Hardyville, Colorado, a bazillion miles from her home in Chicago – and not a place she would go unless a team of mules were dragging her.
They told her she'd been mugged. Someone had hit her over the head in a parking lot and stolen her purse, and probably her car, too.
The baby stirred and started to fret. Instinctively Tara's arms went around him, and she realized with a bolt of clarity that yes, indeed, this was her child. Though she couldn't remember, this felt right. A recent pregnancy would explain why her body felt softer, not the reed-thin figure she remembered, and why she'd changed her hairstyle to something short and no-fuss.
The woman who'd brought the baby looked anxiously at Tara. "Are you saying this isn't your baby? Because if it's not, I'd like to know -"
"He's mine," Tara said with certainty, silently acknowledging the fact that she'd misplaced a good chunk of her memory. Maybe she didn't consciously remember this baby, but her instincts told her he belonged with her.
The woman looked relieved. "I'll take him back whenever you're ready. I'm a volunteer here at the hospital, and I've been caring for him while you're -" Abruptly she looked over at Kevin. "Kevin, what are you doing here? You found the creep who hurt this lovely young woman, I hope."
"This isn't just any lovely young woman," Kevin said, his voice curiously thick. "This is Tara."
The woman's faded blue eyes bulged in surprise. "Your Tara?"
Suddenly the woman was all smiles as she looked at Tara anew. "Oh my gosh, Tara! I'd hug you to pieces, but I don't want to hurt you, what with your injuries and all. I'm Kevin's Aunt Debra. It is just such a pleasure to finally, finally meet you."
"Likewise," Tara said uncertainly. So this was the woman who'd raised Kevin. "Could…could someone please tell me what day it is?"
"Why, Tuesday," Debra replied.
"No, I mean, the date."
"April first," Kevin said.
"And the year?"
Debra and the nurse both jerked in surprise at the question, but Kevin didn't. "It's 2002," he said, confirming her suspicions. She had lost an entire year of her life. And what a year it must have been, she thought, looking down at the baby.
"I'll just go find your doctor," the nurse said as she briskly left the room.
Aunt Debra gently smoothed Tara's hair. "Whatever's wrong, I'm sure living in Hardyville will set you straight. You probably just need to rest. "
"I'm not going to live here," Tara objected, a little more strongly than she'd meant. She softened her voice and looked at Kevin. "Am I?"
Kevin shrugged. He'd said precious little since coming into the room, making her wonder what was going on in his head.
"Well, of course you're going to live here," Debra said. "That's what you were coming here for. To live in Hardyville and marry Kevin."
Kevin started to object. Why would Aunt Debra tell Tara that the two of them were getting married? He and Tara had never broached the subject of marriage, much less agreed to it. In fact, they hadn't even seen each other since they broke up and he quit the Chicago police force to move here.
Debra gave Kevin a warning look that caused him to hold his tongue. He would find out why she'd told such a whopper before calling her on it. He took his aunt by the arm. "Excuse us a minute, Tara." Then he none-too-gently dragged Debra out of Tara's hospital room into the corridor. "What was that all about?"
"Oh, Kevin, don't you see? This is a golden opportunity. You've been mooning over Tara ever since you got here. Whenever I urge you to try and make up with her, to convince her to move to Hardyville and be with you, you say it's impossible. She loves Chicago, hates small towns. Well, now fate is stepping in. She was coming here for some reason. My guess is that she wanted to introduce you to your son…he is your son, isn't he? I mean, you and Tara didn't break up because she was carrying some other man's -"
"He's mine," Kevin acknowledged. God, she had to have already been pregnant that night they broke up. Why hadn't she told him? Then again, he was glad she hadn't. After the events at work that day, he'd been perilously close to a mental meltdown. Shocking news like impending fatherhood might have sent him over the edge. Anyway, he'd been behaving like such a psychotic jerk, no wonder she'd said nothing about the baby.
"Then who knows?" Debra continued. "Maybe Tara was coming here, hoping you'd make an honest woman out of her."
"But we can't just lie to her and pretend that's the case," Kevin said reasonably, although he couldn't deny that the idea of marrying Tara and having her settle down here with him would be all he'd ever wanted. And a baby, a son…that part was pretty overwhelming. No, terrifying. But he would do right by the child. He had to.
"We won't lie for long," Debra said. "She's going to have to stay here a while anyway, to recuperate. She's not in any shape to rush back to Chicago and resume work and single motherhood. She needs rest, and Hardyville is the best place for that. Don't you agree?"
He couldn't argue with Debra's logic. His hometown, nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, was a healing place, with its friendly people and laid-back pace, picture-postcard vistas in every direction.
"You said she hates small towns, but she's never lived in one like Hardyville. Once she gives it a chance, she'll want to stay. And marry you. And then it won't be a lie anymore."
"I won't actually marry her under false pretenses," Kevin said.
"You won't have to. We'll tell her the truth after a couple of weeks – that we simply didn't know why she was here. Then, if she's not convinced this is the place for her, she can go home."
Yeah, she'll go home madder than hell at me for lying, Kevin thought. Tara might never speak to him again. But was that any worse than the way things had been over the past year?
* * *
Two days later, Tara was released from the hospital, and her memory of the past year still hadn't returned. Her doctor said it might never, but chances were that bits and pieces would start to float into consciousness. She hoped so. She hated to think of never remembering her pregnancy, or giving birth to Andrew.
Andrew. She'd had to ask, with some embarrassment, what her own baby's name was. Kevin had told her she'd named the baby after her father, who had died three years ago. That had sounded right, she'd thought, gradually coming to terms with the fact that she was a mother. Debra had been bringing Andrew to the hospital for long visits. Tara had amazed herself by knowing how to diaper and feed and burp Andrew without any instruction, but she had no idea how she knew.
As Kevin drove her home from the hospital, she peppered him with questions. "I became pregnant by accident, right?"
"Why didn't we get married sooner?"
"We didn't want to rush into anything."
That seemed odd. She recalled the night they'd had dinner with their married friends. That was the first time it hit had her that she wanted to marry Kevin, and she'd been wondering how to broach the subject. She must have discovered her pregnancy soon after. So Kevin must have been the one who was marriage shy. She had a hard time imagining Kevin, always so responsible and duty-bound, hesitating to take responsibility for his child.
"We also disagreed about where to live," Kevin continued. "I was sick of Chicago and all the violent crime. I wanted to raise our child somewhere more wholesome. You were dead set against leaving Chicago."
"I changed my mind, though?" She supposed she must have.
"Hardyville is a fine place to raise children," Kevin said. It didn't escape her attention that he hadn't actually answered her question. Had he coerced her into moving here? She couldn't imagine that, either.
"I moved here first and got settled. You were finishing up some big contracts and arranging for Cindy to take over your clients." Cindy was Tara's partner in an interior design firm.
"Did I sell my condo?" Tara asked with a wave of sadness. She loved her condo, having furnished it with loving attention to every detail from the hardwood floors to the switch plates.
Kevin hesitated. "It hasn't sold yet."
She felt relief when she knew she shouldn't have. She'd made a commitment, and there was no turning back.
"Do we have a wedding date?"
"Uh, yeah. June first."
"Is that a Saturday?"
"Well, we haven't actually picked an exact day," he qualified. "But some Saturday around June first."
"Oh. So I haven't actually made any plans?"
"You thought it might be easier to wait until you were actually here."
"Two months isn't very long." Oh well, she'd never wanted an elaborate wedding.
She studied Kevin in profile, acknowledging the changes in him. His wavy hair was longer than he'd worn it on the Chicago police force. His face was more tanned, as if he'd spent more time outdoors. He was also a bit leaner, harder, filling out his khaki uniform in intriguing ways.
But the real change was his eyes. Still dark brown, still deep enough to drown in. But they carried a wariness that seemed alien to Tara, like he'd shuttered a part of himself off from the world – from her.
Uneasy, she looked out the window at…nothing. Oh, there were fields and trees and mountains and blue sky, all very pretty. So pretty, in fact, that it didn't seemed real. Where were the people? They'd hardly passed another car on the dinky road into town, much less passed a pedestrian.
Already she was homesick. She loved Chicago, with its hustle and bustle, the noise, the traffic, the skyscrapers. She loved the nightlife, and the fact that she could get Chinese food at two in the morning, if she wanted. She loved being able to hop on the subway and go anywhere she wanted, or waste a whole Sunday afternoon in a museum.
"Does Hardyville have any museums?" she asked impulsively.
Kevin laughed. "Not unless you count the collection of elk antlers on the wall at the Hole-In-Your-Shoe Saloon."
"You're making that up. There's no such place."
"I'll take you there tonight."
Oh, God. How was she going to survive?
Tara glanced over her shoulder at Andrew, sleeping peacefully in the back seat of the police cruiser as Kevin drove them home from the hospital. For him, she thought. She would cope with her life's changing circumstances for Andrew's sake. Urban Chicago was a great place for an adult, but not a child. A child needed green grass under his feet and places he could roam without fear of being hit by a bus. A child needed fresh air, at least. And a child needed a father.
Kevin looked over at her and immediately sobered. He must have caught the dismal expression on her face. "C'mon, Tara, it's not that bad. We're an hour from Colorado Springs, which most definitely has museums."
"Kevin? Where's my stuff?"
"You know, all the things from my apartment. My furniture, my clothes, my dishes…"
"In storage. Well, some things you brought with you, I'm sure, but they were stolen with your car."
That seemed strange. If she was moving here for good, she would have brought her furniture with her. She shuddered to think about the interior of Kevin's house, her future home. He was color-blind. She could only hope his Aunt Debra helped him decorate.
"Maybe I was driving a U-Haul truck," she thought aloud, but that only made her more depressed. Her beautiful designer furniture could be in Mexico with her mugger by now.
"You flew to Colorado Springs and rented a car – that much we've figured out. Don't worry, sweetheart, we'll catch the guy."
For no reason at all, tears sprang to Tara's eyes. She hadn't cried since waking up in the hospital to discover her life was upside down, but all at once it got to her. She wanted her old life back. She wanted her cell phone and her Rolodex, her big-screen TV with the satellite connection and two hundred channels. She wanted her Daytimer packed with appointments. She wanted…oh, she didn't know what she wanted.
Kevin noticed a strange noise coming from the other side of the car. "Are you crying?"
"Yes, and just let me, okay?"
"No, it's not okay." He couldn't remember ever seeing Tara cry. He pulled the cruiser over to the side of the road, cut the engine, unfastened his seat belt, and scooted next to her on the bench seat. He put his arms around her and held her close, murmuring gentle, soothing phrases as she cried on his shirt.
"I know it's hard, I know, baby," he soothed. "We'll work everything out."
"I want to remember," she sobbed. "I want to know how I got from there to here. God knows I love you, Kevin, but…but…"
"You can't imagine why you wanted to move here," he said, completing her thought.
"It's just so different."
"You haven't even given it a chance. Try it for a while."
"I will. I never meant to imply I would go back on my word. Obviously I made a promise to you, and I intend to keep it. You'll just have to endure my little…fits of adjustment."
A spear of guilt stabbed Kevin straight through the heart. He never should have let Debra talk him into this lie. But if he told Tara the truth now, she would turn tail for Chicago faster than a spooked rabbit. At least he could have a couple of weeks with her first, some memories to draw on during the long Colorado winter nights to come.
She stopped crying after a few more minutes, much to his relief. But he still held her. With her new, softer curves, she felt better than ever in his arms. His groin tightened at the memory of their lovemaking.
Her mind must have been traveling along similar corridors, because she asked, "Kevin, how long has it been since we made love?"
"Way too long." That much, at least, was the sincerest truth.
"How fast can we remedy that situation?"
His breathing came faster. "Darling, as fast as I can haul this car home."
Tara might have forgotten a lot of things, but one thing she did remember was how good she and Kevin were together. They'd dated for three years – two of which she could remember – and during that time their ardent desire for each other had never dulled with time and familiarity.
As Kevin pulled his car into the driveway of a natural wood house on the outskirts of town, Tara's anticipation grew. Surely, once she was in his arms, things would become clear again. She'd always found such comfort in Kevin's lovemaking, as well as excitement.
She gave the modern house, nestled in a grove of birch, a cursory inspection as Kevin unfastened the baby's car seat restraints. It suited him, she decided, and it was far more appealing to her than she would have hoped. She'd always loved contemporary design. In fact, she was known for her daring, almost futuristic concepts when it came to her own design work. But this house had a warmth about it, too, something very inviting.
Kevin handed Andrew to Tara, and she took him with a naturalness she wouldn't have dreamed of before. "What do you think?" Kevin asked.
"Nice, very nice," she said with a smile. "But I'm more interested in the interior. Of the bedroom."
Kevin almost broke his neck getting to the front porch and unlocking the door.
Tara paid little attention to the inside of the house. Her body was primed, and all she could think about was shucking her clothes – and his – and slaking her desire. She was always like this when it came to Kevin and sex. She had tunnel vision. That was probably how she'd ended up pregnant, she reflected. She'd forgotten birth control one too many times.
Kevin led her to a nursery. Tara absorbed the impression of ducks – lots of cute ducks – as she laid Andrew in the crib. Someone, probably Debra, had prepared for Andrew's arrival.
Deprived of his mother's arms, he fretted a bit.
"What's wrong with him?" Kevin asked, sounding unnaturally alarmed.
"Nothing, as far as I know." Tara rubbed Andrew's stomach and murmured soothingly to him. Almost instantly he quieted, closed his eyes, and slept again. Then she turned and hooked her arms around Kevin's trim waist. "C'mon, let's get this show on the road," she said, nibbling his neck the way she knew drove him crazy. "I can't guarantee how long Andrew will sleep."
Kevin scooped her up in his arms. "You don't have to ask twice."
In the master bedroom, Kevin wasted no time in removing Tara's clothes, kissing every part of her body as he bared it. She felt a moment of embarrassment as she wondered how he felt about her new, fuller figure. Kevin, sensing her self-doubt, pulled her to him and enveloped her in a full-body hug. "You look beautiful. Motherhood has softened your sharp corners."
"I had sharp corners?"
Kevin rubbed her back, letting one hand slip down to cup her bottom. "You know what I mean. You could gain or lose a hundred pounds and I'd still love your body."
That was the closest Kevin had ever come to saying "I love you" since she'd awakened in the hospital. He used to say it all the time. Now he seemed sort of reluctant to show his feelings. What had changed – besides her body – in the past year?
Kevin's hand ventured between Tara's legs, and she forgot her worries as a surge of white-hot longing shot through her body. He'd always been able to do this – make her mindless with passion even with the most casual of touches.
"Mmm, my legs won't hold up much longer." She was amazed at how breathless her voice sounded.
"I'll hold you." His breath tickled her as he probed and caressed.
"I'm weak," she pleaded. "I'm debilitated. You're torturing me."
"Okay, I'll stop."
He chuckled as he continued his sensual assault. It must have been a very long time since they'd made love, she deduced. Why else would she be so…so… She amazed herself, and maybe him, by reaching a climax. "Oh, that wasn't fair. That was too fast."
He laughed softly again, the sound giving her pleasurable goose bumps. "Then we'll just have to do it all again, won't we?" He swung her up and onto the bed, then took his time removing his own clothes.
"You've got more muscles," she observed as he bared his chest and a six-pack of abs.
"I chop a lot of wood." He didn't tell her that chopping wood was his method of choice for clearing his mind – of her. He'd produced enough logs for ten years' worth of winter nights.
He let her stare at him for a few moments. The approval in her green eyes made him even more excited than he already was. She wasn't the only one who might reach peak performance before it was desirable.
She held out her hand to him. "Lie with me, Kevin. I – I need you."
He joined her in bed, wondering if she'd been about to say she loved him. If only she did. If only she hadn't had to force herself to come to Hardyville.
He gently kissed her face, the hollow of her throat, the inside of her arm, and between her breasts – all the places guaranteed to drive her wild. And when she'd heated up again, he kissed her mouth with an almost savage intensity before entering her.
He moved inside her, his own desires building to an almost unbearable peak until they overflowed. A raging bonfire exploded inside him. Moments later, as he lay spent and damp against her, she put her hands on either side of his face and kissed him, the kiss as gentle and loving as his had been rough and demanding. Surely she still loved him. She must. She'd been really angry the night they'd broken up, and rightfully so, but he couldn't believe that one argument would negate the foundation of trust and love they'd built before then.
As they lay together in a cocoon of intimacy, Tara sighed deeply. This was good, really good. But sex by itself wasn't enough to make a marriage work – she'd heard that from countless sources. She would have to carve a place for herself, cultivate a life of purpose apart from wife and mother. But what could she possibly find to do here in the wilderness that would fulfill her? Start a mail-order homemade soap business? Raise rabbits? Get a job selling paint at the hardware store?
The possibilities made her shiver with distaste.
"Cold?" Kevin asked, drawing the covers over her bare torso.
She was about to answer when a baby's cry startled her. It came from a small speaker on the nightstand – a baby monitor, she realized, a thoughtful touch. Debra's, or Kevin's?
Tara groaned. "I don't suppose you'd like to check on your son, find out what the trouble is?"
Kevin grew tense beside her. "I wouldn't know what to do. You and I have hardly seen each other in the past few months. I – I haven't really spent any time with Andrew alone since he was born."
"Well, you'd better start learning, Daddy-boy," she said playfully, although tension bloomed inside her chest. Surely Kevin wasn't going to turn out to be one of those macho fathers who thought taking care of children was women's work.
Tara all but dragged Kevin with her to check on Andrew. Now that her mind was clearer, she took a good look at the nursery. Fussy, fussy, fussy, with yellow ducks and blue elephants everywhere. But it was well equipped, with everything she would need to care for an infant, and for that she was grateful.
Aunt Debra's work, no doubt.
"Ah, just as I suspected," she said after a quick diaper check. "He needs a change. You do know how to change a diaper, right?"
"I'm not very good at it. I'll watch you do this one. Then the next one's mine."
"That seems fair."
He watched dutifully as Tara went through the now routine task, wiping, powdering, and taping on the new diaper. "Seems easy enough. Will he go back to sleep now?"
"I doubt it. Getting close to feeding time."
"Okay. I need to make a phone call." And just like that, Kevin disappeared upstairs.
Tara sighed. What was wrong with Kevin? She'd never known him to be tentative or wishy-washy about anything. Did he just plain not like kids? Or was he resentful of being trapped into marriage by an unplanned pregnancy? If that was the case, she couldn't go through with the wedding. She could not bind herself to a man whose resentment for his wife and child might well turn to something worse. She had been telling herself she loved him, but could she truly love a man who didn't put his own offspring first?
* * *
It took Kevin a couple of minutes after he reached his home office before he stopped trembling. It was a baby, just a baby. But nothing had ever scared him like his own son.
Get a grip, he ordered himself. There was no reason to believe he could not learn to competently, responsibly care for his own child. But then he started thinking of the hundreds of things that could go wrong.
He hadn't anticipated such a visceral response to the baby, and such a confusion of feelings. He couldn't help but love Andrew, a tiny human being that he and Tara had created together. But he was also terrified.
The fear was a result of the events in Chicago – he was smart enough to figure that out. His last day on the force had forever changed him. Before then, he'd liked children, had even participated in some programs to help underprivileged kids. Afterward, though, the sheer miracle of a child's life…and the tragedy of her death…had hit Kevin with the force of a wrecking ball.
He hadn't told Tara about that day's tragedy. She might have heard about it on the news, but she wouldn't have known he was involved. He'd been too close to it, too wrapped up in his sins to confide in anyone, even her. His lack of honesty had cost him the relationship, he realized now. They'd broken up that same day.
He would just have to find the strength to bury his fears, he realized. And meanwhile, he needed to find out what Tara's actual plans had been when she'd come to Hardyville. He didn't want any harm to come to her business in Chicago as a result of this little game he was playing.
He found her partner's phone number and called her, relieved to get her right away. "Cindy? It's Kevin Rayburn, Tara's…friend."
"Thank God! I've been trying to get Tara on her cell phone. Has something happened?"
"Her car was stolen," Kevin said. "She also…she's okay, don't worry, but she can't exactly remember how she got to Hardyville."
"You mean she has amnesia? What about Andrew?"
After calming Cindy down and explaining everything, he asked her to rearrange Tara's appointments and make sure her bills were paid on time. Tara was going to be furious with him as it was. No need for him to wreck her business or her credit rating while he was lying to her.
"I'll give you a week to come clean with her," Cindy finally said. "But only because I think what you guys had is worth salvaging. And because Andrew needs a father. But you do right by Tara, or you'll answer to me."
Tara's strength came back more quickly than she would have thought possible, and she fell into a comfortable routine. She got up early with Kevin, they made breakfast together, and he left for work. Then she fed the baby, bathed him, dressed him, all tasks she had once imagined to be drudgery. But everything was fun with Andrew. She delighted in each smile, each wiggle, each time she caught him looking at something with a baby's awe.
While the baby napped, which he did a lot, she tackled the decor of her new home, eradicating Kevin's ugly bachelor theme. Kevin had told her she could do whatever she wanted, so she went hog-wild.
"What's this?" Kevin asked one evening when he got home from work.
"Berber carpet." Tara realized she should have at least warned him. "Stain-resistant – very important when you have kids."
"What happened to my sofa?"
"It's in your office." She bit her lip, wondering if she'd gone too far buying the sage-green sofa and matching chair, and the sage-and-clay striped love seat. Were the colors too girly? They would play in Chicago, but how about Hardyville?
Kevin sat in the chair. He bounced experimentally, then leaned back and nodded with satisfaction. "Okay. What's for dinner?"
She breathed a sigh of relief. "I started a pot of chili." Most evenings, she and Kevin cooked dinner together. He'd turned into a good cook over the past year, probably out of necessity. No human being could endure the greasy food at the Hole-In-Your-Shoe Saloon seven nights a week.
"I'll make some corn bread to go with it."
She smiled, then waited, as she did every evening, for him to ask about his son. If she was away from Andrew for even a few minutes, he was the first thing she asked about when she returned. But Kevin didn't, and it bothered her. A lot. There was something not quite normal about Kevin's attitude toward Andrew, but she couldn't figure out what it was. He seemed interested in the baby whenever they were in the same room, sometimes watching him like a hawk. But he wouldn't touch Andrew unless it was forced on him.
While Kevin changed out of his uniform, Andrew woke from his nap. Tara fed him then put him in a Snugli while she worked on the stock for the chili. Kevin, freshly showered and smelling like soap and clean clothes, entered the kitchen and started on corn bread batter.
"Debra thinks we should have the wedding reception at the VFW Hall," Tara said. "I thought we should have it here at the house. The weather will be nice, so we can spill out onto the deck. And of course, Cindy should play the music."
Kevin froze. "Cindy and her violin?"
"And maybe a couple of her chamber music friends. Not a good idea?"
"First off, the whole town will come to the wedding, whether we invite them or not, and the house isn't big enough. Second, they'll expect beer and barbecue and some real lively foot-stompin' music."
"Then they'll just have to be crowded and disappointed." But a second later she asked, "Is that how everybody does weddings here?"
She sighed. "Oh, all right. I don't want everyone to think I'm putting on airs."
She grabbed the jar of chili powder from the spice rack and realized it was empty. "Shoot, we're out of chili powder. I'm going to run down to Debra's and borrow some." She put Andrew in his playpen then grabbed her jacket from the hook by the garage door.
A look of alarm crossed Kevin's face. "You're taking Andrew with you, right?"
She looked at Kevin like he was crazy. "I'll be gone ten minutes. It would take me longer than that just to get him ready."
"Then I'll go," Kevin said.
"I haven't been out of the house all day," she said, picking up his car keys from where he'd left them on the counter. "I could use the fresh air."
"In that case, why don't all three of us go. In fact, let's bag the chili. I'll take us out to Wild Bill's for pizza."
She nailed him with a penetrating stare. "I'll be ten minutes." Then she turned and headed for the garage door.
She stopped, turned. "What is it?" Before he could answer, she realized the problem. Kevin did not want to stay with Andrew. "Do you find your own son so repugnant?"
"God, Tara, it's not that."
"It is that. You won't even touch him. I've been trying to deny it, but any fool can see the truth. You despise being a father. You're trying to do your duty, but you wish I'd never gotten pregnant."
"No, you've got it wrong."
But she'd worked herself up into a state, and she wasn't backing down. "Well, I won't have it. I won't be a burden to any man, not even you, Kevin. I guess I should have taken you at your word when you said you never wanted children."
They both stood there for a few moments, shocked at the words Tara had just spoken. And Tara realized that something from the previous year had broken through the barrier in her memory. The night she'd gone to tell Kevin she was pregnant. He'd passionately vowed that he would never bring a child into the world. And she'd left his apartment without telling him of her condition.
Other memories rushed through the crack in the dam created by the first. Then it all fell into place.
Kevin knew just by the look in Tara's eyes that she remembered. Watching the emotions that played across her face was like reading her thoughts – and boy, was he in trouble.
"I can explain," he said quickly.
"Like hell you can. You lied to me. You and your aunt and, for all I know, the whole godforsaken town."
"I had a good reason."
"It couldn't possibly be good enough. I trusted you. Now you've destroyed that trust, and nothing can bring it back."
Kevin couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You want to talk about trust? And honesty? Oh, yeah, there's a good one. You were pregnant with my child, and you didn't even tell me about it."
That took away some of her steam. "You didn't want children, a fact you made abundantly clear the night we broke up. I made the decision to have the baby alone for your sake, not mine."
"Then why did you change your mind?"
"I didn't, exactly. But Andrew was so precious, such a miracle…and he looks so much like you, sometimes. I thought I owed it to you to at least let you know the child existed. But I wasn't coming here to make up with you. Certainly not to marry you. And live here? In Hooterville? I don't think so." She brushed past him and headed for the nursery.
Kevin started to follow her, then thought better of it. Maybe he ought to give her time to cool off.
Oh, who was he kidding? All the cooling-off time in the world wasn't going to fix this. If he could make her understand why he'd said those things about not wanting children…but he realized that to do so would require opening a box in his memory that had been locked up tight since he left Chicago. That was somewhere he just couldn't go, not if he wanted to maintain his sanity.
After fleeing from her confrontation with Kevin, Tara took comfort in the refuge of her son's warm, cuddly body nestled in her arms. This was love, as pure as it came. Grown-up love, though, that was a lot more complicated. She loved Kevin. She couldn't stop loving him, no matter what he'd done.
She realized that, in his mind, Kevin could somehow justify the deceit he'd perpetrated. He sure hadn't pretended they were engaged out of a desire to be with his son. Maybe Debra had pressured him into "doing the right thing." Or perhaps he'd lied to her from some misguided notion that he knew what was best for Tara.
And maybe he did know, she thought glumly as she settled into a rocking chair with her sleeping child. These past couple of weeks had been some of the happiest of her life. As she'd settled into the rhythm of country living, she'd hardly given a thought to her business. Things at her design firm were probably in a shambles. And what about her bills, her bank accounts, all the pieces of her life she'd walked out on? She'd intended to be back home a week ago. Had Kevin even thought about that?
She heard the phone ring, then stop. Kevin had answered. She hoped it wasn't for her. She wasn't up to talking to anyone.
A few moments later, Kevin tapped on the nursery door.
"What?" she snapped.
He stuck his head through the door. "I have to go. The guy who mugged you was caught in the next county, trying to sell your rental car. We'll talk when I get back."
She refused to even look at him. With a sigh, he closed the door.
Tara knew what she had to do. She had to go home. If she gave Kevin the chance, he might convince her to stay – not because it was the right thing to do, but because, despite everything, she still wanted to be with him. But she had to think about Andrew. No child of hers would grow up under the same roof as a reluctant, bitter father.
She made flight reservations from the airport at Colorado Springs for later that evening. It didn't take her long to pack up her things. She'd only bought a few items of clothing to replace what was stolen. Andrew took longer – she couldn't believe all the paraphernalia babies required.
While she packed, she thought about her mugger. She'd never even seen his face, as he'd attacked her from behind. She was glad they'd caught the guy, but she hoped she wouldn't be required to testify in court. She didn't want to come back here for any reason. She never should have come in the first place.
When she was ready she called a cab. The fare to Colorado Springs would be exorbitant but she still had a credit card, which had been tucked into her pocket and overlooked by the mugger.
As the cab driver put her things in the trunk, she took one last look at the house. Kevin's house, nestled among the trees. She'd come to love it in so short a time. She purposely summoned thoughts of Chicago, where she'd lived for years, and which she'd missed so desperately the first few days in Colorado. Now, all she could remember was how noisy it was, how cramped her condo was, and how stressed out her hectic job made her feel.
"We'll get used to it again," she said aloud to Andrew. Fighting tears, she climbed into the cab, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder. Kevin would be surprised when he got home to find her gone. She hadn't even left a note. She figured that after what he'd done, he didn't deserve an explanation.
Anyway, he would probably be relieved.
* * *
It was after ten o'clock by the time Kevin returned home. The paperwork had been hell, but he'd managed to convince the sheriff in the neighboring county that the suspect should be prosecuted in Colby County, where the more serious crime had been committed.
The house was dark. Tara was probably already asleep. Before she'd become a mother, she was a real night owl, hanging out with friends at late-night coffee houses or going to midnight movies at the local art-house theatre. Now sleep was a precious commodity.
He wouldn't wake her up, he decided. Tomorrow would be soon enough for them to talk.
He moved as quietly as possible through the house. His stomach rumbled at the chili he'd missed out on. Were there leftovers, he wondered? To his dismay, the half cooked pot of chili still sat on the stove, stone cold. Tara hadn't finished it. He hoped she hadn't gone to bed hungry. He helped himself to a couple of cookies from the jar, then went to the nursery to check on Andrew.
The baby wasn't in his crib. Uneasiness crept up on Kevin. Surely the baby was just with Tara in the big bed. She had, on occasion, taken him to bed with her when he was fretful. Kevin had been worried he would roll over in the night and squash the child, so he'd made Tara keep Andrew on the other side of the bed. She'd probably thought that was another indication that he resented his son, he thought ruefully. A lot of his actions could be misinterpreted that way.
When he found the master bedroom empty and Tara's clothes gone, he was forced to admit he'd been abandoned.
He sank onto the bed, his gut churning, his head spinning. He'd known that lying to Tara was wrong. He'd have told her the truth in a few more days. His plan had been working – Tara had gradually been discovering the joys of country living. She might have been convinced to stay on her own and go through with the marriage. But her memory had returned too soon, and she'd made her decision.
And taken away his son.
Sure, he could petition the courts for visitation rights. But if Tara was against his having contact with Andrew, he couldn't see himself fighting with her over his parental rights. A child didn't need to grow up with his parents arguing over him. Besides, what had he done to indicate he ought to be given any rights where Andrew was concerned? He'd been a disgraceful father.
Something caught his eye – a pad of paper with some writing on it next to the phone. He immediately recognized the numbers and letters as flight information. Below the flight was a local phone number, one he didn't recognize. Seized with an idea, he dialed the number.
"Speedy Cab Service."
"Sorry, wrong number." He hung up. So, Tara had taken a cab to the airport in Colorado Springs. And her flight didn't leave for another two hours. She might not be that far ahead of him. A plan began to form. Not a very good plan, he admitted, but at least he would be taking some sort of action, rather than letting the woman and child he loved vanish from his life forever.
He headed for the door, grabbing his jacket on the way. Thank God he was still driving his police cruiser. He jumped in, cranked up the engine, and headed for the highway that led to Colorado Springs. Once on the open road, he pushed the speedometer to eighty, knowing no one would stop him.
He spotted a Speedy Cab ahead of him, about ten miles from the airport. Could be anybody in that taxi, he thought. Then he noticed the cab had a broken taillight. Good enough. He turned on the flashing lights.
Tara spotted the flashing lights behind them at the same time as her driver. The driver cursed under his breath and slowed. "I knew I should have gotten that taillight fixed," he muttered.
Tara knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, who was driving that Colby County cruiser, and writing up a ticket for a broken taillight wasn't his top priority. "It's just my boyfriend," Tara said to the driver. "Ex-boyfriend. Keep driving."
"Are you crazy? I'm not gonna get involved in some crazy chase. Cabbies who do that, they end up on America's Most Dangerous Car Chases." He pulled over to the shoulder and dug around in the glove box for his papers.
Tara slouched down in the seat, knowing she'd brought this on herself. She'd left her flight information right where Kevin would find it. Had she subconsciously done it on purpose? Had she wanted him to chase her down, to prove his love?
Kevin, looking ominous in his khaki uniform, leaned down to speak with the driver. "Evening."
"I know, I got a busted taillight," the driver said as he handed Kevin papers he hadn't asked for. "It's on back order at Jimmy's Auto Supply."
"I believe you, Mr., um, Slater. And I won't write you a ticket. But I can't allow you to continue driving with a malfunctioning light."
"One little taillight?" the driver objected. "Look, I gotta get this lady to the airport."
"It just so happens I'm headed that way. I'll take the lady -"
"You will do no such thing," Tara erupted, unable to keep silent any longer.
"Then you'll sit here on the side of the road until another cab can come get you. If you come with me, you'll make your flight."
"Then what's the point?"
"There's a price to pay. You have to listen to what I have to say. Then, if you still want to return to Chicago, I won't stop you."
Tara sighed. It was as fair an offer as she was likely to get. "Fine," she ground out as she worked at the seat belt that held Andrew's car seat. "But I'm not changing my mind."
A few minutes later they were headed for the airport in Kevin's cruiser. She had paid the cabby, and Kevin had told him he could go, having capriciously decided the bad taillight was no longer a mortal danger to the drivers of Colorado. Now they sat in silence as the lights of Colorado Springs grew closer.
"You'd better start talking," Tara said. "We haven't got much time."
"This is harder than I thought it would be."
"Start with something easy. How did you know Andrew's name?" In the hospital, when she'd realized she didn't even remember her own child's name, Kevin had come up with it. During her cab ride, she'd wondered if he'd had some prior knowledge of the baby.
"It was a logical guess," Kevin answered. "So you really did name him after your father?"
"Yes." Tara was amazed at the accuracy of Kevin's guess. He knew her pretty well. "Let's move on to something harder. Why would you coerce me into marrying you when you don't like children?"
"I never said I didn't like children. I love Andrew."
"Couldn't prove it by the way you treat him."
"I love Andrew," he repeated. "But the fact is…he scares me."
Kevin felt his throat tighten at the mere mention of his phobia. He'd never admitted it to anyone – not his family or friends, not the shrink who saw him after the shooting, and certainly not Tara. But it was time to admit that the events in Chicago had left him changed.
"What do you mean he scares you?" Tara asked, sounding bewildered. "What possible harm could a little baby do to you?"
The cruiser sped past the Colorado Springs city limits sign. Kevin realized he didn't have that much time. He had to screw up his courage and tell her what had happened that day.
"It's not the harm he could do to me," Kevin said. "It's what I could do to him."
Tara shifted uneasily. "You'd better explain."
"That night in Chicago when we broke up… You were coming over to tell me you were pregnant – is that right?"
"Yes. I tried to ease my way into the subject. But at the mere mention of children, you went ballistic. You said you never wanted children, that the very idea made you nauseous. Do you blame me for not telling you that you were going to be a father?"
"No, I guess not. But I wasn't in my right mind that day. Something had happened on my shift, something… Tara, I killed a kid."
"What?" For the first time since he'd caught up with her, she didn't sound quite so mad.
"A little girl named Marvella White."
Kevin waited to see if the name rang a bell with Tara. The story had made the evening news, but in a city that had become numb to killing, the headlines about Marvella had quickly given way to some new tragedy.
"Marvella White was that little girl killed by her father," Tara said. "Right? What does that have to do with you?"
Kevin gripped the steering wheel harder. "I could have saved her. Instead I let her drugged-up old man blow her away."
Tara gasped. She couldn't help it. "You were there?"
"I was the first officer on the scene. A neighbor had called, said it was a domestic disturbance. I didn't know till I got there that some crazy S.O.B. was waving a gun, his wife screaming, pleading with him to put it down, two little kids cowering under a table.
"I called for back-up, but meanwhile I had to do something. So I tried talking to the guy. He said he was going to kill his wife. So I told him to think about his children – did he want them to grow up without a mother?
"The guy said, 'Why do I care? They're not my kids.' Then he turned his gun on little Marvella and shot her in the chest, just like that."
"Oh my God." Tara had had no idea. Why hadn't he told her what had happened? If she'd known, she would have made some allowances. Instead she'd been focused on her problems.
"I subdued the guy, and then I tried to stop Marvella's bleeding." He stopped, swallowed thickly. "She died in my arms."
"And you think this was somehow your fault?"
"It was my fault, damn it. I didn't know a damn thing about hostage negotiations. I had no business trying to reason with a guy who was high on PCP. All I did was provoke him."
"You did what you thought was right at the time. No one can say what he might have done if you hadn't talked to him. He might have killed them all, and you, too."
"That was what the board of inquiry said. But tell that to Marvella's mother, and her brother. All I know is when I lost her, I felt responsible. And I never wanted to feel that way again. I never wanted anyone to trust me with a child's life, in any capacity. The responsibility is just too huge."
Tara did her best to digest what Kevin had told her, to put herself in his place. How horrible, what a nightmare to believe you'd caused the death of a child. No wonder he'd freaked out.
"I wish I'd known," she finally said. "Maybe I could have helped."
"It's not too late."
The words hung in the air, almost tangible, as headlights from the opposite lane of traffic rushed by, illuminating Kevin's face like a strobe.
"Kevin," she said, "pull over. I need your undivided attention."
He did as she asked. When they were safely out of traffic, she felt she could say what needed to be said. And if she was lucky, Kevin would hear what he needed to hear.
"Parenthood is all about fear, and doubt, and sometimes sheer terror. While I was pregnant I agonized over every bite of food I put in my body, frightened I might unwittingly harm the baby inside me. During labor and delivery I was positive something would go wrong. The first time I held Andrew, I was sure I would crush him, or breathe some germ onto him and give him a fatal disease. When my doctor told me we could both go home from the hospital, it was a whole new level of terror. The baby and me, alone? I almost refused to go."
"You must have gotten over it, then," Kevin said. "You're as comfortable and natural with that baby as any mother I've ever seen. Once you got over the shock of seeing him in your lap, that is."
"That's where you're wrong. I'm still scared all the time. Is he going to fall? Catch a cold? Will I feed him something he's allergic to? Will he get stung by a bee? Is he developing normally? Is there some hidden genetic problem? I might fake it better than you, but I'm still scared."
"So when does it end? When do you get over being scared?"
"From what I hear, you never do."
"How do you…how do we live like that?"
She didn't miss the change of pronoun. Did she dare hope that he could embrace his responsibility for Andrew? He'd come all this way to stop her from leaving him. That must mean something.
"I can live with the fear," she said, "because every time I hold Andrew, or feed him, or bathe him, or see him smile, I know he's worth any discomfort I have to go through. It was kind of like when I was in labor. I thought I was going to die, honestly. I was sure no woman had been through such pain in all of history."
Kevin reached out and caressed her cheek. "I wish I'd been there for you."
"But as soon as I saw him, all red and wrinkled and screaming his head off, I didn't care about the pain anymore. He's a miracle, and he's worth any trial, any sacrifice." She glanced over her shoulder. Andrew, good baby that he was, slept peacefully in his car seat.
"You both are," Kevin said. "Let me try again. I'll do better. I'll come back to Chicago with you. I'll join the force again. And I'll be a better father. I'm teachable."
Lord, how could she turn down that earnest face? She'd never seen such raw need in anyone. "I'll have to think about it. For now, could you just take us to the airport? I need to get home."
He didn't argue with her. He drove her to the airport. He helped her with her bag. He stood in line at the ticket counter with her, all the while looking like he wanted to burst with an objection.
She was afraid to admit to him that she was a bundle of indecision. Whatever she did in the next ten minutes would radically influence the rest of her life.
"This line is taking forever," she grumbled. "Will you hold down the fort while I run to the washroom?"
He glanced nervously at Andrew, who still dozed in his car seat. She could have sworn he gritted his teeth in determination. "Okay."
In the ladies' room, Tara splashed her face with water. Her heart was so full of confusing feelings, she thought it might whirl its way right out of her chest. She loved Kevin. That much was certain. She could forgive his deception, since he'd only done it because he wanted a chance to win her over. But could they really make a life together?
As she returned to the line at the ticket counter, she saw something that made her choice incredibly easy. Andrew's car seat was empty. The baby was now in Kevin's arms, snuggled up against one shoulder. Kevin rocked back and forth with him, jiggling slightly, as if he'd been born to fatherhood. He was also talking to the baby, though she couldn't hear what he was saying.
He looked a little sheepish when he saw her approaching. "He started to cry. I'm not sure what he wanted, but…"
"He wanted exactly what you gave him," Tara said with a smile. They'd reached the front of the line, and she went to the next available agent. "I have a reservation, Tara Satterfield," she said. "But I'd also like to make another reservation for next week, Chicago to Colorado Springs. One way."
She sneaked a glance at Kevin, who appeared shocked. "You're coming back?"
"I'm going to Chicago long enough to pack up my things and tie up a few loose ends. Then I'm coming back here to finish, um, planning my wedding."
She wasn't about to drag Kevin to Chicago and make him live there, not now that she'd seen what life in Hardyville was like. It wouldn't be any big sacrifice for her to live there. Shoot, she wanted to. She'd never felt as relaxed and happy as she had over the past two weeks.
Kevin's mouth slowly spread into a grin. He rubbed Andrew's back absently as he looked at the ticket agent. "Got any more seats on that flight to Chicago?" He turned back to Tara. "I'm finally getting to know this little guy. I don't want to say goodbye to him now, even for a week."
Her heart swelling, she leaned into him and they kissed. A couple of other passengers who had heard the exchange applauded.
"Look at you," Tara said when the ticket agent cleared her throat, forcing them to end the kiss. "You've been holding that baby for at least five minutes, and you haven't dropped him even once."
Kevin smiled down at Andrew and switched him to the other shoulder. "Yeah, how about that."
"It will get easier, Kev, I promise."
"It already is."
With their tickets in hand, they walked toward security, a real family for the first time.