An Unlikely Daddy. Rachel Lee
better than this. Smoother. This was turning into a hash. “I’ve been out of the country,” he finished finally. That was absolutely true.
She looked down. He braced for her to tell him to go to hell, a place he was intimately familiar with. But then, with a visible shake, she said, “Come in. I’m going to freeze standing here.” She stepped back, allowing him to pass.
The house was warm and quiet except for the laboring forced air heat. A pleasantly sized foyer welcomed him, speaking of age and care. She pointed to his right. “Get yourself a seat in there. Do you want a hot drink?”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Hayes. If you want something, don’t mind me. I’m not trying to impose.”
But that was exactly what he was doing, he thought as he watched her walk away toward what was presumably a kitchen. She wore jeans and a bulky blue sweatshirt that reached to her hips, with the sleeves pushed up. He would have bet that sweatshirt had belonged to John, and now it was doing double duty as a maternity top.
He stepped into a cozy living room, a collection of aging and mismatched pieces that somehow came together to create a quietly colorful charm. He settled on a goosenecked chair covered with worn burgundy damask, only to pop to his feet again as she returned carrying a glass of milk. She took the other chair, a rocker, probably easier for her to get in and out of these days than the sofa across from them. He sat when she did.
Then the silence grew almost leaden. He let her study him while trying not to return her stare. She hadn’t suggested he remove his jacket, so she wanted to keep this short. Fine by him. He could come back tomorrow.
She broke the silence. “You got him the job with the State Department.”
If she’d etched the words with acid, they couldn’t have stung anymore. “Guilty,” he admitted. And of a whole lot more besides.
“Did he know?” she asked.
“How dangerous it might be?”
God in heaven, that was a question with no right answer. Truth, he decided. As much truth as he could offer. “Yes.”
“As dangerous as being in the Rangers?”
Again he offered the truth. “It wasn’t supposed to be.”
She closed her eyes again, and he noted that she was rocking a little faster. “They won’t tell me the truth,” she murmured. “They said it was a mugging.” Her eyes snapped open. “I know Johnny. No mugger could have taken him.”
It was true. But it was equally true that they’d given him the same story. “They told me the same thing. A street mugging.” Initially. Unfortunately, he couldn’t reveal the little he’d learned later without revealing operational secrets. God, he’d been a fool not to have considered all the secrets he’d have to continue to keep. But still, he owed this woman and her child something.
Her gaze bored into him. “Do you believe it?”
“I...found it difficult. But...” He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. Some things he knew couldn’t be shared. Other than that, he knew almost nothing. “Muggings, street violence, in other places...well, they aren’t what we know here. And it’s pretty bad in some places here.”
Her rocking slowed, and he watched tension seep out of her. At last she lifted her milk and sipped it. “So you’re as much in the dark as I am.”
He chose not to answer.
Then she smiled faintly. “So you’re R.T. And here I thought you were an Arthur. Why didn’t you ever visit when he was home?”
“Because,” he said with perfect truth, “when John came home, all he wanted to do was be with you. I wouldn’t have intruded even if he had asked me.”
* * *
Marisa felt the words burrow straight to her heart like a spike. Reminding her of her loss, a loss that walked beside her every waking minute and during sleep sometimes, as well. But she heard the truth in them. He had known Johnny, because once she had suggested that he bring home some of his friends to visit. His answer had been, “I’m selfish. When I’m home I want you all to myself.”
She studied this Ryker Tremaine, this ghost out of John’s past. She saw in him the same hardness that she had sometimes seen in Johnny. Men who had faced death in the service of a cause. It changed them, gave them an edge.
A tall man, solid, with a face etched by many suns and hardships into a near rocky definition. A square face, with eyes almost like midnight and a strong jaw. He had been pared, the way she had watched Johnny get pared by his experiences. Honed, like fine knives.
Seeing Johnny in him, seeing a resemblance in their characters, eased her doubts even more. She’d invited a stranger in, and now she recognized him. Johnny’s ilk. Johnny’s friend. Certainly someone who had walked the same difficult, secretive paths.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“John wanted it. Because...” She watched him hesitate, wondering what he was withholding. “Because I care.” That at least sounded true.
“Did he ask you to come?”
Ryker shook his head. “Not exactly. This wasn’t supposed to happen. But after he started working at State, yes, he did ask me to check on you. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to come or just call you.”
She could believe that. The fist that had been clenching her heart, since she’d realized Ryker was part of Johnny’s history, loosened its grip a bit. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean to be cold. It must be hard for you, too.”
Something passed quickly over his face, then he said bluntly, “It’s been hell. Not your kind of hell, I’m sure, but it’s been hell.”
She felt a little warmth for him then. Though she hadn’t thought much about it, Johnny must have left other people grieving, too. Like an old friend named Ryker Tremaine. “You want to talk about him?”
“If you want to.”
“I have some gaps I’d like filled in.”
Again that odd hesitation from him, but then he explained, “Within the bounds of operational secrecy. You must have heard that from John.”
Words she had come to hate, because they had left her with huge holes in her memory of Johnny. Things she would never know, things he couldn’t share. Maybe even some things he didn’t want to share, which she could understand. But now, with an empty future in front of her, she was hungry to fill in that unknown past. Things he had done and seen but had never mentioned.
She rocked a little more, feeling her child stirring inside her. She laid her hand over her belly, feeling the active little pokes. A girl. She’d kept that to herself, as well.
“Johnny didn’t know we were going to have a baby,” she said. One of her greatest pains, laid bare now to a stranger. “I called to tell him, but he wasn’t there, and then...”
“I just heard about it recently. Evidently John wasn’t the only one who didn’t know.”
She nodded, absorbing the betrayal again. He should have at least known about his baby before he was killed. It seemed so wrong that he didn’t.
“He’d have been happy,” Ryker offered.
“I suppose.” Another resentment bubbled up inside her, one she tried to bury, but one she couldn’t quite quell. “He was gone a lot. Did he tell you how we met?”
“You grew up together.”
“Not quite. He was older. A senior in high school when I was in seventh grade. I had a crush on him, but he didn’t know it until much, much later. I was in my last year of college when he came home on a visit and noticed me. Really noticed me. We were married the day after I graduated. Then he was off again.”