Authors: Jill Marie Landis
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General, #Erotica
Table of Contents
More praise for
“With her first foray into contemporary novels, Jill Marie Landis utilizes all the power and emotion that has made her such a beloved storyteller. Her characters are compelling, believable, and possess all those troubling human foibles.”
“Jill Marie Landis spins a passionate tale of gripping emotions, rich in feelings of devotion and love between a mother and her son.”
“An unforgettable story about new beginnings and searching for a place to belong . . . A heartwarming and insightful love story.”
“A strong, engaging relationship drama that hooks the reader from the start through a fully developed secondary cast supplementing the prime plot. . . . Readers will appreciate this robust family drama.”
—Midwest Book Review
“Heart-touching and impossible to put down. Landis’ compelling depiction of characters extends even to the villainess and six-year-old Chris; the pacing and plot are dead on, and consequently this love story is a joy to read.”
By Jill Marie Landis
Published by Ballantine Books
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To Paul Edholm
For answering a whole lot of questions.
Many thanks to you both.
THE YOUNG WOMAN STARED AT THE WELL-DRESSED LAWYER across the squalid room. A man in his late forties, he hadn’t smiled once since she let him in. Nor had she—not since he’d offered her money for her baby.
Wearing a three-piece suit and monogrammed socks that cost more than she made in tips on a good night, with shoes that dared to shine through a fine layer of Borrego dust, he was as out of place here as filet mignon at a fish fry.
His crisp, spotless business card lay on the arm of the ripped love seat where she waited, mute and terrified, for him to stop talking. Arthur Litton, from the firm of Somebody, Somebody, and Some Other Lawyer, had made the three-hour drive from Long Beach to meet with her—but just now he was brushing at the knee of his suit. A waste of time when a fine coating of sand covered every surface in the room.
Even the mute images of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on the television cavorted beneath a dusty haze.
The lawyer’s voice was well modulated and cool, betraying no hint of emotion. It made the young woman’s skin crawl. She watched his thin lips move, tried to concentrate on the words.
“Now that you’ve heard the terms, are you willing to accept my clients’ offer?”
She opened her mouth, but didn’t trust what might come out so she swallowed and tightened her arms around the six-month-old infant in her arms. Her baby boy. Her son.
Her hands shook as she shifted Christopher to her shoulder. That morning she’d dressed him in pale blue sleepers with little brown bears romping over them. She wished it was still early instead of nearly noon—wished she could turn back the clock and start the day over.
“Let me get this straight,” she said softly. “You came here to
“That’s putting it bluntly. His grandparents want him.”
“They expect me to just hand him over and walk away?”
“They’re willing to pay a seven-figure settlement for the privilege of raising their only son’s child. They want nothing but the best for him and they want things their way.”
“You mean they want me out of the way. I’m his
“They could file a petition for guardianship.”
She didn’t know anything about the law but enough to know she didn’t want any part of a custody fight—not with her background.
“We’re prepared to prove the child will be better off with the Saunders.” He paused, pointedly gazed around the room again.
The place looked like a bomb had gone off inside it. Her roommate, Wilt, always said he “wasn’t expecting f-ing Martha Stewart, and if people don’t like the way I keep house, they can f-ing stop coming over.” His old trucking buddies never minded the mess, and since this was Wilt’s house, she never insulted him by cleaning.
The living and dining rooms were full of pieces of cast-off furniture. Art supplies were strewn all over—canvases, tubes of paint, rags, and turpentine. A palette of fingerprint smears marred the door frames.
Her own desert landscapes, from her earliest attempts to her latest, were scattered around the room. Smaller pieces hung on one wall in the dining room, just above a battered Early American table.
A moonscape complete with a howling coyote and an eerie silver-blue glow—Wilt’s latest passion was painting on black velvet—rested on an easel near the kitchen door.
When the lawyer showed up at the door asking for her, Wilt took cover in the kitchen. Now she heard the sound of ice hitting the bottom of a glass and the freezer door close. She knew that her roommate was close enough to hear every word.
Litton spoke again.
“My clients are certainly in a position to raise the boy the way Richard Saunders would have wanted him raised.”
“Rick wanted to marry me. He wanted to raise Christopher
“But Richard is dead, isn’t he? He’s not here to say
he did or didn’t want.”
“I’m Chris’ mother. They can’t have him, and they can’t take him away from me.”
“A private investigative firm has started a background search on you.” Without even looking at documents, he began listing all the things they’d dug up, reciting them like a litany.
“You were born in Albuquerque, a drug baby whose mother walked out and left you at the hospital. You were raised in a series of foster homes. Social services listed you as a problem child with tendencies to disrupt the environment in every situation in which you were placed. You were charged with shoplifting when you were fourteen and ran away from the last home you were in at seventeen. Six months later, you applied for a California driver’s license. You have been openly living with Mr. Walton, a sixty-four-year-old retiree, for four years. . . .”
“My clients can make this
hard on you. The Saunders are very wealthy people with a lot of influence in Southern California. You haven’t enough money or connections to fight them.”
He leaned forward, as if he had no stake in the outcome of her decision, as if he were speaking from the heart. “If you’re smart, you’ll take the money.”
“But, surely they can’t just
my baby. . . .”
Mr. Litton’s hand closed around the handle of his briefcase. He paused, then sighed heavily. He stood, looked directly into her eyes. “Take the money and we’ll draw up a contract. They will legally adopt the boy. You’ll be a very wealthy young woman with your whole life ahead of you.”
Anger quickly replaced her initial shock. She shook her head, knowing in her heart that this wasn’t right. None of it was what Rick would have wanted for her or for Christopher.
She and Rick Saunders had spent only a month together, but they’d been lovers right from the start. He’d blown into town like a desert dust devil, riding around in a hot, new Porsche, buying up land he planned to develop as soon as he returned from a year in Japan, working for his father’s shipping company.
He’d never made her any promises. She’d expected none and never asked for any. It was enough to be with him, to bask in the warmth of a smile that burned bright as a comet in the midnight desert sky.
At the end of a month, Rick left for Japan as planned. She hadn’t heard from him again until three weeks ago when he had shown up on the doorstep. That was the day she’d told him that she had given birth to his son.
Once he had laid eyes on Christopher, he shocked her by immediately proposing. Deep in her heart, she knew it wasn’t out of love, but that Rick wanted to be with his son. He told her that he wanted them to be a family, and she accepted his proposal, hoping that his plans for their son were enough to build a marriage on.
A few days later, Rick drove to Long Beach to break the news about her and Christopher and their plans to his parents. She had been packed and waiting the day Rick was on his way back to Borrego to pick them up and take them home, but he never made it.
The Porsche went off the road, and Rick died at the bottom of a ravine amid a twisted tangle of metal and sandstone boulders.
Three days later, while she mourned not only Rick but the end of a dream, the Saunders finally returned her calls, told her they would be holding a private memorial, but that she was not invited. She tried to understand, to make excuses for them. The Saunders didn’t know her, they were grieving. Perhaps they blamed her for Rick’s death. If he hadn’t been on his way to get her . . .
to marry me.” She spoke softly, more to reassure herself than anything else. “Just because he’s gone, that . . . that doesn’t mean I don’t want his son. I gave birth to Christopher because I
him. I intended to raise him by myself before Rick found out our baby even existed. Once he saw Christopher, he wanted us to be a family.”
“I’m afraid we only have your word on that.” Litton pointedly gazed around the room again. “Do you honestly think he would want his son raised like
?” He leveled his cool, emotionless gaze on her. “Perhaps the amount the Saunders are offering isn’t enough. If that’s the case, I’m sure they’ll up the ante.”
Christopher stirred. Caroline patted his bottom, juggled him against her shoulder. Fear had crept in to close around her heart, enough fear to give her a burst of courage. She stood and continued to stare up at the lawyer.
“Get out, Mr. Litton.”
“If you’re smart, you’ll reconsider.”
“You’ll be hearing from my clients again. They don’t take refusal lightly.”
As soon as the door closed on Litton, she sat down, too drained to move. She heard the slap of Wilt’s bare feet on the kitchen linoleum before the sound was silenced when he stepped onto the balding shag carpet. His heavy hand, reassuring, solid, soon came to rest on her shoulder.
“Goddamn it to hell.” Wilt always had a way of summing things up in as few words as possible.
She couldn’t make her mind work. Christopher was fussing, kicking his sturdy legs, tugging at the front of her T-shirt.
“What am I going to do, Wilt?”
“Hell if I know, but whatever you decide, I’m with you.”
He cleared the back of the couch, walked around and sat in the lima-bean-green velour chair that Litton had just vacated. A glass of ice water in his hand dripped condensation, forming a moist stain on the arm of the chair. His plaid flannel shirt was rumpled, slept in; his baggy navy-blue sweatpants oozed over the sides of his suntanned bare feet. More gray than blond, a heavy walrus mustache hid his upper lip.
Wilt had been her rock, her savior when he picked her up on the side of Highway 40 in Arizona four years ago. She’d been walking alone, hitching, dazed and confused and too out of it to care what happened to her when he pulled his rig over and offered her a ride. After miles and hours together, he’d opened his home to her, offered to keep her off the streets.
Over the past four years, Wilt had become the grandfather she never knew. One day while he was painting, he gave her a blank canvas, a few hints on blending color and filled a palette with paint for her. He had seen some doodles she’d done on scratch paper and encouraged her to sketch landscapes, recognizing what he called raw talent. Slowly, with his guidance, she learned to paint.
She came to trust him with her life and would trust him with Chris’, too. But that afternoon, sitting there amid the dust and the oddly comforting chaos, she had a feeling that even Wilt couldn’t help her now.
She waited until late afternoon when he drove down to the fruit stand for grapefruit. She dressed Christopher, packed his diaper bag.
Wilt kept his emergency money in an old Folgers’ coffee can in plain sight on a shelf in the kitchen cupboard. He’d shown it to her when she moved in, told her that he was being up front with her and expected the same, even if she was just a kid. He also added that if she ever needed the money for a
emergency, she was welcome to it.
As she took the can down off the shelf and pulled off the plastic lid, she figured there probably would never be a bigger emergency in her life and that Wilt would agree.
There was a sizable wad of bills inside the can. She didn’t stop to count them, just divided them in two and shoved the rolls deep into the pockets of her jeans.
She grabbed an envelope from some junk mail lying on the cabinet by the phone, found a pencil.
There’s nothing I can ever say or do to thank you for
what you’ve done for me. You’ve treated me better than
anyone has in a long time, so it hurts me to repay your
kindness by taking your savings stash, but I’ve thought
and thought, and I can’t seem to figure out anything else
to do but go where the Saunders can’t find us.
It’ll be easier on you if I don’t tell you where I’m going.
I’m not real sure where I’ll end up, but I can only hope it
will be someplace one-tenth as good as what I’ve had
here with you.
Take care of yourself and keep painting. If there ever
comes a time in my life when I can pick up a brush to
paint again, I’ll think of you.
I wish I didn’t have to go.
She set the note beneath the empty coffee can in the middle of the table where he would see it first thing when he walked in.
As she threaded her way through the living room, she purposely avoided looking at all of the paintings she would leave behind. There was a piece of her soul in each and every landscape, a vision in every ghostly shadow figure she’d been inspired to include in all of them.
She’d miss the desert with its ever-changing natural drama as much as she’d miss Wilt, but there was no looking back now.
Holding Christopher close, she took one last glance around the living room before she shut the sliding glass door behind her. She was scared, but she was more frightened of the Saunders than of being alone on the road again.
She had reinvented herself once before. She could do it again.