An Unlikely Daddy. Rachel Lee
“Of course. I know he loved you more than anything on this earth.”
She felt her mouth twist. “Not quite. The Rangers were his first love. No competition there.”
Ryker surprised her then. He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees. “I wouldn’t say that. I listened to him talk about you. Man, did he brag when you got your master’s degree. When you started teaching at the college here. He was so proud of you.”
“I was proud of him, too,” she answered simply. “I still am.” Then the grief speared her again. “When he took the job with the State Department, I thought he’d be safer!”
“He should have been, Marisa.”
Anguish twisted her gut. The baby reacted, kicking hard. “Well, he wasn’t.”
Ryker didn’t answer, not that she could blame him. How did you respond to that? She had no answers for herself, so how could anyone else? She leaned back in the rocker, giving her lungs a little more room, feeling the baby’s agitation like scalding criticism. She had to remain calm for her daughter.
Ryker remained silent, a sphinx full of secrets he was no more likely to share than Johnny had been. Why had he come? Because of Johnny? Probably. But to what purpose? What could he possibly do to make any of this better? “I don’t see the point of you coming.”
“To help in whatever way I can. Just to talk if that’s all you want from me. But I’m going to stay in town for a while, Marisa. I know my arrival is a shock, and I’m sorry. But I owe something to John.”
“John’s past caring,” she said bitterly.
“Not for me he isn’t. And if there’s anything I can do for you, I’ll do it, even if it’s just knocking down the icicles out front.”
She looked at him again and couldn’t mistake his determination. Wherever Johnny’s loss had forced her, it was clearly pushing this man, too. So they had something in common. Little enough.
She closed her eyes again, rocking gently, feeling her baby settle down, the pokes lessening. Peace returning. A hard-won peace. Acceptance hadn’t come easily, but it had come, although it hadn’t eased her grief one bit yet.
If there was any blessing in all of this, it was that during her marriage she’d grown accustomed to Johnny’s long absences. She didn’t expect to see him around every corner, didn’t expect to wake to find him beside her in bed, didn’t keep listening for the sound of his voice. Not every waking moment prodded her with reminders of his absence.
But the grief, anger and sometimes even despair often rolled over her like a tsunami, irresistible and agonizing. For all the holes in the past, there was a bigger one in the present.
Let it go, just let it go. The man nearby was grieving, too. Maybe together they could find some answers for each other. Not that life offered many answers. Things just seemed to happen.
She looked at Ryker again. He studied his hands, or maybe the floor. She couldn’t tell which. “How long will you be in town?”
“I don’t know. I do know that I’m not leaving immediately. And I have quite a bit of time.”
Meaning what, exactly? “So you were with Johnny in the Rangers, too?”
“We worked together on a number of missions.”
She accepted that, for now at least. “When he joined the State Department, I thought we’d be traveling a lot. I was looking forward to it. Only he got sent somewhere families can’t go.”
“I know. There are a lot of those places, unfortunately.”
“So what do you do?”
His smile was almost crooked. “Security. Keeping the embassy or consulates safe, and most especially the people who work there.”
“Johnny was a translator.” But of course he knew that. Her husband had a gift for languages. He soaked them up the way the grass soaked up the rain. She’d never found out exactly how many of them he knew. But then she’d never asked him to count them for her. When they’d been together, other things had seemed so much more important, the sharing and caring and lovemaking. The occasional time with old friends, but mostly... She lifted her head. “Our marriage was like one long honeymoon. When he was home we might as well have been on our own planet.”
Ryker’s face shadowed. “That’s wonderful.”
“I thought so. We never had enough time to take one another for granted.” Why was she telling him this? Was she reminding herself? Was it important somehow? “But one thing I took for granted was that we’d have a future. No matter where he went, I always believed he’d come home. I was a fool.”
“You were an optimist,” he corrected firmly. “How else could you do it?”
Good question, she supposed. No answer, but still a good question.
He spoke again. “Some of us do things with our lives that are very unfair to the people we love.”
“Are you married?”
He shook his head. “I envied John. He was happy with you, he trusted that you were strong enough to handle all this. I could never trust that much.”
“Maybe you were kinder.” She hated herself for saying it, but there it was. Johnny had trusted her to be able to handle this?
“No, I wasn’t kinder,” he said. “More selfish. Love ’em and leave ’em, that was me. My romantic past is strewn with ugliness. John at least made a commitment, tried to build something good. I not only envied him, I admired him for it.” Then he offered her something approximating a smile. “But then I never met a woman like you.”
“One who could put up with this. They always wanted me to change. You didn’t try to change John. Pretty special.”
“Trying to change someone is pointless.” Of this she was certain. “We are who we are, and if you can’t love someone just the way they are, then you don’t love them.”
“There’s a lot of wisdom in that.”
“Just truth.” She sighed. Facing up to reality again. Always painful these days. “So you weren’t with John when this happened?”
“I was in another country. A little far away to be of any use.”
“Johnny could take care of himself,” she said. “I guess that’s what’s bugging me as much as anything. He could take care of himself. This shouldn’t have happened.”
Ryker stirred. “No, it shouldn’t have. But a lot of things shouldn’t happen. I live in a world where things that shouldn’t happen often do. I’m just sorry you got dragged into it. I’m sorry John didn’t make it. I’m sorry as hell I got him the job. And I wish it had been my funeral, not his.”
She couldn’t doubt him, but this wasn’t right. She felt a stirring of self-disgust. All her dumping had done was make this man feel worse about something that had been out of his control. What kind of shrew was she becoming?
“Don’t say that, Ryker. Please. I’m not attacking you.”
“Why not? I deserve it. I saw my good friend talking about changing careers, and I found him a job. It’s my fault you’re grieving, and I know it. I should have just told him to come home to you and become a shopkeeper or something.”
That had the oddest effect on her. It booted her right out of her misery to a place where she could actually see some humor. The shift was instantaneous and shocking. She actually laughed. It sounded rusty, but it was real. “Tell me,” she said, “do you really think Johnny would have done that? Do you think he’d have taken that job you got him if it wasn’t what he really wanted to do? Come on, Ryker. Let’s be honest here. Johnny was Johnny, and he’d have made a lousy shopkeeper.”