An Unlikely Daddy. Rachel Lee
that flag, as if it were the moment she had accepted Johnny’s death. Then the man, someone she didn’t know, a State Department official who had given his name, as if she cared, had said, “John was a true hero.”
So? He was a dead hero, and his widow just wanted to climb into that hole beside him.
She lifted her gaze to the insensitive blue sky, wondering why it wasn’t gray and weeping, the way her heart wept. Why thunder and lightning weren’t rending the heavens the way her heart was rent.
She thought about burying the flag with Johnny. Just marching the four steps and placing it on the coffin. He’d earned that flag, not her, and right now it felt almost like an insult, not an honor. But she didn’t do it. The baby. Someday the child within her might want this flag, all it would ever have of its father except a few photographs. Maybe someday it would even mean something to her.
“Marisa.” Julie’s quiet voice, near her. A touch on her arm. “We need to go.”
“I think I was including you in that.”
She turned her head, her neck feeling stiff, and looked straight into Julie’s worried face. “I...can’t.”
“Yes, you can. Come on, hon. You can come back tomorrow if you want. You can come every single day. But right now...”
Right now people were waiting for her, waiting to take her home, waiting to put Johnny in the ground. When she came back tomorrow, the turf would still be there, covering the bare, freshly turned earth. But Johnny’s coffin wouldn’t be where she could see it. His final home.
Numbly she nodded, facing the inevitable. Everything seemed inevitable now. She felt like a leaf caught in a rushing river’s grip, unable to stop anything, unable to catch her breath, unable find the shore. Adrift, banging from one rock to the next, helpless.
Despite Julie’s entreaties, she walked up to the coffin and laid her hand on the cold, polished wood. “I love you,” she whispered, hoping he could hear, fearing he couldn’t.
Then, jerking with every single movement as if her body belonged to someone else, she allowed Julie to lead her back to her friends and the row of cars.
It was over. Tomorrow loomed like a devouring dragon. She hoped it devoured her.
Ryker Tremaine pulled up to the Hayes house on a frigid November night and looked at it from within the warm confines of his car. He needed to go in there, introduce himself to John’s widow and start making amends. He suspected what John’s death had cost Marisa, but it was only when word had sifted back to him that she was pregnant that he realized he had a whole hell of a lot of atoning to do. Because of him there was not only a widow, but a fatherless child.
He had some stains on his soul, but this one felt bigger than most, and some were pretty big.
It was a large house. He knew it had been in John’s family for generations, because John had told him. It was, in John’s mind, a safe place for Marisa to stay. She had grown up around here, too. She had a job at the community college, she had friends to look after her when her husband was away. And neither of them had any family left, odd as that seemed. Even Ryker, at almost forty, had parents who had retired to New Mexico and a sister who had married a sheep rancher from New Zealand. Somehow Marisa and John, through the vicissitudes of illness and life, had been left alone.
And now Marisa had no one but friends. Had she been blessed with a big family, he’d have felt his mission of repentance was pointless. But there was a woman and a baby who John Hayes couldn’t look after. He owed something to John, to that woman and to that baby.
Just what, he wasn’t sure. Conscience and a vague promise to John had driven him here, and now conscience kept him inside the car when he should have just strode up to the door and introduced himself.
She’d had nearly six months. Maybe someone out of her husband’s past would only refresh her grief. And maybe he was making excuses because he dreaded this whole thing.
He wasn’t a chicken by nature.
Sighing, he glanced in the rearview mirror, taking stock as much as he could. He’d ditched the suit because it was too much around here, and had settled on a sweater, jeans and a jacket. He didn’t want this to look official, or remind her of bad things more than necessary.
But he continued to sit in the car a little while longer, wondering if this was just a huge act of selfishness on his part. He’d been wrestling with that since the thought of coming here had first begun goading him.
Penance was fine, as long as it didn’t inflict pain on someone else. Atonement should make things better, not worse. He shouldn’t salve his own guilt by worsening her pain.
He’d finally gotten to the point where he could no longer tell what was right or wrong, whether he was being selfish or paying a debt he owed a friend.
There was only one way to find out. That was to knock on the door and introduce himself. If she told him to go to hell, he’d have his answer. And maybe that wouldn’t freshen her grief too much, just to hear someone say, “John was my friend.”
Finally, he climbed out of the car, crunched his way across a sidewalk covered with rock salt and went up the porch steps. Icicles hung from the eaves, probably from a recent, brief thaw. If she didn’t tell him to get out of her life immediately, he should knock them down. They weren’t huge, but they could be dangerous, and she shouldn’t do it herself in her condition.
At last he could avoid the moment no longer. The doorbell glowed, demanding he punch it and then face whatever came. Usually that wasn’t a problem for him. Most things in his life had come at him the hard way. But this time...well, this time was different.
He rang the bell. He waited as the winter night deepened. She must be gone. Well, he’d come back tomorrow.
Then he heard the doorknob turn and the door opened. He recognized her instantly from photos John had shown him. Long ash-blond hair, eyes that were shaded somewhere between blue and lavender, set in a heart-shaped face. Her lips, soft and just full enough, framed the faintest of quizzical smiles. And her belly... He couldn’t help but look at the mound. John’s baby, due in a few months.
“May I help you?” Her voice was light, pleasant, but cautious.
He dragged his gaze to her face, understanding in an instant what had drawn John to her. Surprise shook him as attraction gut-punched him. He figured he must be plumbing new depths of ugliness. His friend’s pregnant widow? Off-limits. He cleared his throat. “Hi,” he said. “My name’s Ryker Tremaine.”
If he expected her to recognize it, he was disappointed. Her brow creased slightly. “Yes?” No recognition, nothing.
“I was John’s friend,” he announced baldly. “We worked together at...State. Before that, a few times when he was in the Rangers.”
Her smile faded, but at least she didn’t pale. “He never mentioned you.”
He’d anticipated this possibility. The question was whether he should just walk away or press. He nodded. “He used to call me R.T.”
“R.T.?” The furrow deepened, and then recognition dawned. “Oh. Oh! I thought he was saying Artie. Short for...” She clapped her hand to her mouth, as if containing something, and her face paled a little. “You were with him.”
“Not that day,” he said evenly. This wasn’t going the way he’d imagined, good or bad. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave you alone. I just...when I heard you were...” He glanced down.
Her hand dropped from her mouth to the mound of her belly. “Oh.” She sounded faint and closed her eyes. Then they opened, blue fire. “Is there a reason for this visit after all this time?”