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Authors: Kate Davies

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BOOK: Cutest Couple
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Chapter Four

The front lobby was quiet and dimly lit as Marc walked into the Silverton Hotel. The desk was deserted, which didn’t surprise him considering what time it was, but there was a bell in front of the register that chimed quietly when he tapped it.

“Can I help you?” A man walked out of the back room, tucking in his white button-down shirt and buttoning his cuffs. He looked rumpled, for lack of a better word, and his thick dark hair had one of the worst cases of bedhead Marc had seen in a long time.

He was clearly attempting to look official, but it just wasn’t working. The poor guy looked like he’d just rolled out of bed.

“Do you have any rooms available?”

The man turned to the computer and started clicking. “I think so. There was a last-minute cancellation, and unless someone filled it while I was busy...no, it’s still here.”

“Great.” Marc dug out his ID and credit card and handed them over.

“Busy weekend. Glad we had a spot for you.”

“Me, too.” He scrawled his signature on the form in front of him. “Last-minute decision to stay in town for the reunion.”

“Were you at the pub tonight?”

“Briefly.”

“Thought you looked familiar.”

Marc crossed his arms. “Did you enjoy the show?”

The man looked up, puzzled. “I—have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Marc shook his head. “Sorry, I assumed that...never mind.”

“Okay.” He went back to the computer. “And we didn’t go to school together, in case you’re wondering. I was just there helping out a friend.”

“Whew.” Marc shook his head. “It’s been a few years, but not that many.”

“I’m Jeremy, by the way.” He held out his hand. “General manager of the Silverton. And usually not so casually dressed at work.”

“You’re off the clock. I won’t tell anyone.”

“Appreciate it.” Jeremy smiled at him and handed over a key card. “Third floor. Turn left off the elevator. Need help with any luggage?”

Marc lifted his duffel bag. “Traveling light this weekend. But thanks. I think you’re free to go back to your evening now.”

Jeremy shrugged good-naturedly. “Would love to, but truth is you weren’t the first interruption this night has had. Think I’ll just hang out until T...Tom gets back.”

“Well, thanks again.” Marc nodded at Jeremy and headed for the elevators.

The room was spacious, and clean, and most of all, quiet. A few hours of shut-eye and he’d be ready to deal with the massive, confusing, exhausting situation that loomed before him.

At least, he hoped he would be.

* * *

“Thought I’d find you here.”

Bree pushed off with her foot, sending the swing on an upward arc. She leaned back and let the breeze tangle her hair as she swayed back and forth. “Predictable,” she said, still looking away. “That’s me.”

“Consistent,” Tess corrected. She sat down on the swing next to Bree. “So, how was the pub?”

Bree started to laugh, ignoring the edge of desperation underlying. “I certainly gave everyone something to talk about.”

Tess nodded, beginning to move, their swing rhythms in perfect counterpoint. “Apparently I missed the fireworks by about five minutes. Why the hell didn’t you come find me?”

“I couldn’t stay,” Bree said. “I had to get out of there.”

“And you knew I’d find you anyway,” Tess added.

“I was hopeful.”

They were silent for a long moment, the only sound the squeaking of the chains holding the swings aloft.

“So is it true?”

Bree laughed once. “Well, let me see. Is it true that he kissed me? Yes. Is it true that we had a fight about Ben? Yes. Is it true that until tonight he never knew he was a father? Yes. Beyond that, there’s probably some embellishment going around.”

“Holy shit.”

Bree nodded. “I screwed up, Tess.”

Tess blew out a breath and leaned back, looking up at the sky. After a long pause, she said, “Yep. You did.”

“You’re not supposed to agree with me.” Bree groaned and turned in a circle, twisting the chains of the swing together until they wouldn’t twist anymore. Then she lifted her feet and let the swing spin the opposite direction until she was dizzy.

“Who the hell made that rule? I’d be a piss-poor excuse for a best friend if I wasn’t honest. And you know it.”

Bree planted her feet and brought the swing to an abrupt halt, glaring at Tess. “I hate it when you’re right.”

“No you don’t. You love me no matter what.” Tess leaned over and gave Bree a kiss on the cheek. “And I love you, even when you get yourself into disasters like this one.”

“It was so awful, Tess. The shock on his face. I was so sure he knew, and just didn’t care. Now, I don’t know what to think.”

“If it’s any consolation, he’s probably feeling the same way right now.”

Bree sighed. “He was blindsided. And I caused it.”

“So how are you going to fix it?” Tess turned sideways to look at Bree. “For Marc and for Ben.”

“I don’t know that it can be fixed. Not after all this time.”

Tess pushed her shoulder and glared at her. “That’s a cop-out and you know it. It’s done, yeah, but you can’t wash your hands of it now. Too many other people are affected.”

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” Bree said.

“You’re gonna have to figure it out, though.” Tess set her swing in motion, easing into the familiar rhythm. “Especially for Ben.”

Bree pushed off, pumping her legs to make the swing go higher and higher. There was something comforting about the back and forth, the familiar cadence of the squeaking chains. “What if Marc doesn’t want to have a relationship with Ben? It’ll crush him.”

“What makes you think that Marc won’t want to connect with his son?” Tess glanced over from her swing. “Granted, I haven’t seen him in a decade, but that doesn’t sound like him.”

No. It didn’t. And that was what scared Bree even more. Because what if Marc
did
want a relationship with his son? After all these years of just the two of them against the world, where would that leave her?

“Hey.” Tess’s voice softened. “You and Ben have a wonderful relationship. Just because his dad is suddenly in the picture doesn’t mean that’s going to change.”

“Reading my mind now?”

Tess laughed. “Been doing it for sixteen years now. I see no reason to stop.”

Bree shook her head, chuckling a little. “Dork.”

“Okay. It’s—” Tess checked her watch, “—almost two in the morning, you’ve had an emotionally exhausting night, and you’ve got a lot of shit to deal with tomorrow. Later today. Whatever.”

Cold chills broke out over her skin, making her shiver in the night air. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep.”

“Try anyway.” Tess stood up, pulled Bree out of her swing and gave her a big hug. “Love you.”

“I know. I love you, too.” She sighed and leaned into the hug. “Thanks for coming here tonight. I probably ruined your evening.”

Tess scoffed and gave her one last squeeze before letting go. “Nothing’s ruined. I’m sure Je—my invoices will still be waiting when I get back.”

Bree stared at her, curious about the incomplete thought but too tired and stressed to push her on it. “Go. But don’t work on invoices. You need to get in bed, too, young lady. Tomorrow is a busy day for you.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Tess walked over to her car and got in, waiting for Bree to do the same. She rolled down the window. “Let me know how tomorrow goes. And Kelsey, too. You know she’s going to kick your ass for leaving her out.”

“There was no way in hell I was going to drag her out of Nathan’s bed for my decade-old drama. I can catch her up on it tomorrow.”

“You’d better, or you know there’ll be hell to pay. Drive safely. And try to get some sleep.”

Bree waved, rolled up her window and backed out of the parking space. At the stop sign, she and Tess turned in opposite directions, and she watched the red taillights fade in the distance as they both drove away.

It was a nice thought. But until she made it through the Ben-and-Marc introductions, sleep was going to be a distant afterthought.

Chapter Five

The hotel gym was open twenty-four hours a day.

At 4:15 a.m., he finally gave up on sleep and headed down to take advantage of that amenity.

Clad in a T-shirt and gray sweat shorts, he ran on the treadmill, worked his way through the weight machines and went a few rounds with the punching bag.

By the end, he was out of breath and drenched in sweat, but no closer to clarity than he’d been when he started.

He had a son.

A son named Ben.

And no one—
no
one
—had bothered to tell him.

Yes, he’d left town right after graduation. And his family had moved not long after that, so he hadn’t come back for holidays or during leave. But that didn’t explain why no one tried to get in touch with him about something this life-changing.

The most he’d gotten was a half-assed mention from Rafael right before Bree knocked him off his feet with the news.

Not that he’d been that good about keeping in touch. He’d never been one for sending Christmas cards or emailing out of the blue. What the hell would he have said, anyway?
Out
of
the
country
again
.
Spending
the
holidays
in
a
place
that
ends
in

stan
.
Have
a
great
year
!

Maybe he should have tried harder, called or emailed more. Maybe he should have joined Facebook.

Jesus, that was a depressing thought.

He headed over to the treadmill again. Might as well kill some more time until the sun rose and he could go meet his son.

* * *

The call came as she was washing up the breakfast dishes.

A quick glance at caller ID wasn’t very helpful: there was no name, and the number was one she didn’t recognize. But her heart rate sped up anyway.

She knew who was calling.

“Hello?” Bree kept her voice low. Ben was in the next room playing a computer game, and she didn’t want to draw his attention.

“Good morning.”

Marc’s voice was clipped, almost formal. There was none of the casual warmth she’d noticed the night before.

Well, why would there be? He probably hated her now. And with good reason.

“Hey, Marc.” She swallowed over the lump in her throat. “Um, how are you?”

“About as well as can be expected.” He paused. “I’d like to meet Ben, if I could.”

Bree sat down heavily. It wasn’t unexpected, but being confronted with the reality of the situation was still overwhelming. “Of—of course.”

“I’ve been thinking about it,” he continued. “Pretty much all night, actually.”

“Me, too,” she whispered. Despite Tess’s advice, she hadn’t gotten any sleep.

He cleared his throat. “Have you told him yet?”

“Not yet.” She glanced at the open doorway.

“Well, here’s what I’m thinking.” He paused again. “I don’t want to hit him with the news right away. I know that when I was a kid, if someone I’d never met before walked up and told me they were my dad, I’d have had a hard time with that.”

“Yeah,” Bree agreed, letting out a slow breath. “I think that makes sense.”

“So why don’t you give me your address, and I’ll come over, maybe in an hour or so.”

Her gut instinct was to say no, to run, but she squared her shoulders and told him how to find the house.

Then she hung up the phone and put her head in her hands for a long, long time.

* * *

Marc sat in his car and looked at the little house across the street.

It was a tidy bungalow, with a neatly trimmed yard and colorful flowers lining the walkway. A bike leaned up against the one-car garage, helmet dangling from the handlebar. The front door was open behind a screen door, likely left that way to let the little bit of breeze in on this hot day.

This was just the sort of place Bree used to talk about, back in high school, when she was describing how she saw her life in the years to come. College, job, marriage, a home.

And he’d wanted that, too, wanted it with her. Just maybe not the same way she’d wanted it.

He sighed and got out of the car, squinting in the bright sunlight. A few steps up the walkway and he was on the tiny porch. He rang the doorbell and waited.

The rumble of running feet grew closer.

“Ben, slow down!” Bree’s voice was muffled, but even so he could hear the urgency underlying it. “Let me get the door.”

It was too late. A skinny, towheaded boy skidded to a stop in front of the door and stared at him inquisitively.

It was like looking at photo albums from his own childhood. If his mom had still been in town, there was no way Bree could have kept this a secret. The boy looked just like Marc had at that age.

Marc nodded at him.

“Hi. Are you selling something?”

Marc muffled a laugh. Leave it to the kid to be direct like that. “No. I’m...” He swallowed, suddenly finding the words hard to say. “I’m a friend of your mom’s.”

“I’ve never met you before.” Ben opened the door and cocked his head. “What’s your name?”

“Marc.”

If the name meant anything to the boy, he didn’t show it. Instead, he yelled over his shoulder, “Mom, there’s some guy at the door.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bree approach, one hand over her mouth. She looked like she was trying not to cry.

“Hi, Bree.”

“Hello.” She cleared her throat. “Ben, honey, this is Marc. We went to high school together.”

“Oh.” Ben shrugged. “Okay.”

Marc looked at Bree, at a loss. What did you talk to nine-year-olds about? It wasn’t like he had a lot of opportunities to interact with kids in his line of work. “So, what grade are you in?”

“I’m going to be in fourth,” he said. “I hope I get Mr. Reese. He brings his students doughnuts on Fridays. Do you have any kids?”

“Uh...”

Bree finally came to his rescue. “Why don’t you go get some lemonade? We can sit in the backyard for a little bit.”

“Okay.” Ben took off for the kitchen at full speed.

“No running in the house,” Bree called after him, in what was clearly a frequent admonition.

Marc watched him go. “He never slows down, does he?”

“Never.” She smiled after him. “It’s full tilt ahead all day long. Then at bedtime, he’s out in seconds and doesn’t move all night.”

“I was the same way when I was a kid.”

She looked down. “Marc, I...”

He cut her off. “Backyard?”

She tilted her head in acknowledgement and led the way.

There would be time for this discussion later. Right now, he wanted to get to know his son.

* * *

“He’s a great kid.”

Bree craned her neck and watched Ben ride his bike down the driveway. “Watch for cars,” she called after him. Then she turned back to Marc. “Thanks. I think so, too.”

“I missed so much.”

His voice was low, but she heard every word.

“Marc, I’m so sorry.”

He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “I don’t get it, Bree. How could you think I would walk away from this? How could you think I knew about him and didn’t care?”

“You walked away from me without a second glance. Why would I think it would be any different with a child?”

He stared at her. “Are you kidding me?”

“We were together for two years, Marc. Then you joined the army and I never heard from you again. It was clear that you picked your career over me. What was I supposed to think?”

“That I was respecting your goddamn wishes!” He stood up and paced to the end of the patio, fists clenched. “When we broke up you said you never wanted to see me again. Never wanted to hear my voice. What the hell was I supposed to do?”

“You were supposed to care enough to try!”

“I don’t fucking believe it.” He stalked back, eyes narrowed. “Do you know how often I wanted to call you? And now I find out that it was a fucking
test
? One that I failed because I took you at your word?”

“Marc, I—”

“And why the hell couldn’t
you
call? I gave you my contact information before I left for boot camp.”

“You chose the army over me.”

“You chose your irrational fear of the army over
me
.”

She was going to throw up. Wrapping her arms around her stomach, she whispered, “I had every reason to hate the military.”

He went on, as if she hadn’t even spoken. “Did you realize how much I missed you? How much I wished you could get over your issues with the military and we could get back together? But you’d made it perfectly clear that it wasn’t going to happen. So when you never called, never wrote, I figured you’d made your decision.”

“I did write.”

He gave her a withering look.

“Fine.” She raised her hands in surrender. “I take it back.”

“Bree.” He sat back down. “Why didn’t you even try?”

“I don’t know.” She sighed. “I guess it was easier that way.”

“Easier?” He stared at her. “You chose life as a single mom with no child support and no father figure for your child. Because it was easier than dealing with an ex-boyfriend? Nice to know you hated me that much.”

“No!” She reached a hand out, then let it drop. “I never hated you.”

“Then how could you shut me out of this experience?” His anger was a carefully controlled thing, hovering under the surface of every word. “I never got to see him as a baby. I missed his first steps, his first word. I missed all those things that make up a childhood!”

“You would have missed them anyway!” Bree stood up and stalked across the postage-stamp-sized backyard.

“Are you kidding me?”

“You would have missed it like my dad missed all those things when I was a kid.”

“So no one in the military should have children? Don’t be ridiculous.” He stood, too, arms crossed over his chest.

“You would have been overseas for months at a time. Maybe years. I would have been on my own anyway, but with the added worry of having to tell my son something horrible happened to his dad.”

“And now you’re assuming I would have died?” He could feel his temper fraying. “Why me and not you? Hell, you could have been hit by a car crossing the street. Life is dangerous.”

“You
chose
danger!” She pointed a finger at him. “You knew how I felt about it and you did it anyway!”

“So you punished me by keeping my son from me!” He whirled around and stalked across the yard. “You robbed me of all those years!”

“I thought you knew!” Her voice was rising, too, her eyes flashing with anger.

“Bullshit!” He slammed his hand against the tree trunk, ignoring the flash of pain. “You assumed something you had no right to assume. And you didn’t care!”

“I thought I was doing what was best for my son.”

“No, you did what you thought was best for you,” he argued. “Not what was best for Ben, or for me. You cheated us both out of time together because of your fear of something that never happened.”

“Maybe I did,” she shouted, “but I didn’t want my son to know what it was like to have a father who died.”

“Instead, he doesn’t know what it’s like to have a father at all!”

“Mommy?”

They both turned. Ben was standing in the side yard, holding on to the handlebars of his bike. His eyes were wide and bright with tears.

“Why are you fighting?”

“Oh, honey.” Bree rushed forward, dropping to her knees and wrapping her arms around Ben. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you yelling at each other?” Ben looked over her shoulder at Marc. “Why are you talking about my dad?”

“It’s nothing,” Bree assured him, running her hand over his head in a soothing motion.

Nothing
?

Bree turned around, still holding Ben. Her expression was livid. “I think you’d better go.”

“Bree, I—”

“Not. Now.” She nodded toward the back door. “Go.”

With a terse nod, he headed out. In a no-win situation like this, a strategic retreat was the best choice.

But this conversation was far from over.

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