Authors: Cheryl Douglas
“Mom, did you really meet Zach Foster today?”
With a dozen butterflies flitting around in her stomach, Rennie forced a smile. “Sure did, buddy. How cool is that?” She definitely should have told Terri about her history with Zach. Tyler would be relentless about asking when he could meet one of his baseball idols.
“He was here, in this office, standing right about where you are,” Terri said, adding fuel to the fire as she looked at Tyler’s neon green and black Skechers.
“No way,” he whispered, staring at his mother. “Mom, why didn’t you keep him here so I could meet him?”
“What would you have me do, Tyler, handcuff him to my desk?” A wave of heat moved up her neck when she remembered the time they had experimented with handcuffs. Zach had just bought his first condo and they were enjoying the luxury of privacy…
“Hello?” Terri snapped her fingers in front of Rennie’s face. “Are you still with us?”
“Sorry, I was just thinking about something else.” Something she had no business thinking about in the presence of her child—correction,
child. “How was school today?” Rennie hoped there hadn’t been any more incidents. Tyler was a good boy, but he’d been acting out lately, trying to get attention in class and instigating trouble on the playground. Their therapist thought it may be the result of residual feelings about losing his father. How would Tyler feel if he found out he not only had a father his mother had never told him about, but his father was none other than baseball superstar Zach Foster?
“It was okay,” Tyler said, wrinkling his nose. “The best part was gym.”
“Of course it was.” Rennie rolled her eyes. Tyler was definitely Zach’s son in that respect. He had been born wanting to throw a baseball, not to mention all of the other sports he played when time allowed.
“Hey, I made sugar-free cookies last night,” Terri said. “You want one?”
“Can I, Mommy?” Tyler asked. She was Mommy when he wanted something, Mom when he was trying to act cool in front of his friends or teammates.
Checking her watch, Rennie said, “Just one. You have baseball practice in an hour, and I’m making your favorite for dinner—beef fajitas with whole grain wraps.” She conned him into eating protein by telling him it would help to build the muscles he’d need to become a professional athlete.
“Can I chop the veggies?” he asked.
He liked to play with the new slice and dicer she’d bought to cut down on meal time preparation. She was usually in a hurry to get a decent meal on the table after baseball practice. He’d been trying so hard to help out around the house since Nathan died. It broke her heart to see her baby feel he had to take on the role of her protector when his only thoughts should be of school, sports, and spending time with his friends. “Only if I’m there to supervise. You know the rule.”
“Yeah, I know the rule.” He smiled when Terri offered him a cookie in a paper napkin. “Thanks.”
Rolling his eyes at his mother he said, “I don’t know why you won’t let me do more stuff on my own.” He took a bite of the cookie. “I’m not a baby, ya know.”
Terri and Rennie shared an amused glance. Terri had a nine-year-old daughter, so she knew the challenges of trying to survive life as a single parent.
“I thought you said you’d always be my baby.” Rennie stood as she collected a stack of applications to review that night. She slid them into her leather briefcase.
“So, when am I gonna meet Zach Foster?” Tyler asked, making her heart stutter.
“Mr. Foster is a very busy man. I can’t make any promises. Come on, let’s go. We still have to swing by the house so you can change.”
“Have a good night,” Terri said as Rennie ushered her son out the door.
A good night? Like that was possible. Even a good night’s sleep would be too much to hope for.
As soon as she’d found a spot on the bench, Rennie dialed her sister’s number. Jackie would understand her predicament. She was one of only two people who knew for certain that Tyler was Zach’s son. Rennie had kept the truth from her parents because they were close friends with the Fosters, and she didn’t want to put them in the uncomfortable position of having to lie to them about their own grandchild. She’d humiliated herself instead, claiming she had a brief affair with a man she barely knew when she left town. Her rebound guy, she’d called him. Her parents didn’t question her about it after she claimed the child’s father didn’t want to be a part of his life. At least that much was true.
Jackie’s husband, Mason, answered the phone. “Hey there, what’s new with my beautiful sister-in-law?”
Gotta love caller ID,
Rennie thought wryly. Her brother-in-law was one of the good guys. He treated his wife like a princess and was an attentive father to their two-year-old, Alyson. He was the only other person who knew that Zach was Tyler’s father. Jackie told her sister that she couldn’t keep secrets from her husband, and Rennie agreed. The last thing she wanted was to cause tension in her sister’s marriage. Rennie reminded her kid sister all the time that men like Mason were few and far between. She knew how easy it was to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and forget to tell her partner how much she loved and appreciated him. Then one day, she’d wake up and realize it was too late.
Trying to shake off her melancholy mood, Rennie said, “Same old, same old. How about you? How’ve you been?”
“I can’t complain. When’re you coming over for dinner? I miss beating you at ping pong.”
Rennie laughed. Whenever she went to their house for dinner, she, Mason, and her dad made a beeline for the games room. They would waste the night away playing pool, ping pong, and vintage arcade games. Her mother swore they were worse than the kids, but Rennie loved every minute of it. Spending quality time with Mason and her father reminded her good men were still out there. Maybe one day, when the time was right, another one would walk into her life. “Save the trash talk for another day. I need to talk to my sister. Is she around?”
“Yeah, she’s out in the backyard planting some flowers. Hang on, I’ll get her for you.”
She heard Mason call his wife sweetheart. It reminded Rennie how much she missed the little intimacies of married life.
“Hey, sis,” Jackie said, sounding winded. “This is a nice surprise. I didn’t expect to hear from you tonight. Doesn’t Tyler have a game?”
“Yeah, I’m here now,” she said, smiling and waving to parents claiming the bench two rows in front of her. She lowered her voice. “You’re never going to believe who walked into my office today.”
“Zach.” Rennie waited for a reaction. Her sister would be as stunned as she had been that afternoon.
“How the hell did he know where to find you?”
Rennie was still using her married name, Alexander. Even if he’d Googled her, it wouldn’t have been easy to find her. “Call it dumb luck.” Rennie watched her son take the pitcher’s mound. The intensity in Tyler’s dark eyes reminded her so much of Zach. She always felt a pang of guilt and uncertainty when she saw him in his baseball uniform, following in his daddy's footsteps. “One of the kids who submitted an application wanted to meet him, so Terri called Zach to try to arrange it.”
“So he just showed up at your office?”
“Yup.” She still couldn’t believe it herself. “But that’s not the worst of it. He saw Tyler’s picture and started asking questions.”
Those were her sentiments exactly. The sisters had had numerous conversations about how Zach might react if he found out she’d kept his son from him. Rennie told herself that she’d been justified. She didn’t want her son growing up with a father who wished he’d never been born. Jackie always told her that people change. Maybe Zach felt differently now. Maybe he’d be mad as hell she hadn’t given him the opportunity to participate in his son’s life, and he’d use all of his resources to fight her for custody, or try to poison their child’s mind against her. The Zach Rennie had known wouldn’t have done anything so sinister, but after the phone call she’d overheard the night before their wedding, she questioned whether she ever really knew him at all.
“What are you going to do?” Jackie asked, breaking into her thoughts.
“He still thinks I’m married.” She knew she should have told him she was a widow, but she still found it difficult to admit that Nathan wasn’t coming home.
“Why would he think that?” Jackie asked, sounding confused.
“He saw my ring and our wedding picture.” She couldn’t block out how gutted Zach had looked when he realized she was married. What did he expect? That she would put her life on hold and wait for him to grow up and decide he wanted the family he never intended to give her?
“How did he react?”
“He seemed surprised.” Stunned would have been a more accurate description, but her sister didn’t need to know every detail.
“Excuse me?” Rennie lowered her voice when a couple of grandparents a few feet away glanced in her direction. “Don’t make him out to be the victim in all of this. He made it clear he didn’t want the baby I was carrying.”
“I know.” Jackie sighed. “But don’t you think he would have felt differently when he found out you were actually pregnant? I mean, guys may say they’re not ready for a baby, but when the time comes, they usually feel differently.”
“Not a risk I was willing to take.” Rennie hadn’t softened her stance on that. She wouldn’t risk her son’s future on a man too immature and selfish to realize that winning the World Series would have paled in comparison to having a son like Tyler.
“I hear ya. What’s done is done. The question is, what are you going to do now?”
“He wants me to arrange his visit with the boy.” Rennie was normally meticulous about ensuring visits went off without a hitch, but just once, she’d give anything to delegate her responsibilities.
“Oh man, are you going to?”
“I don’t have a choice.” A sick boy was counting on her. When she took the job, she’d promised herself she would do everything in her power to make every child’s wish come true. She couldn’t allow her own fear to rob Jake of his one chance to meet his hero.
The kid sure has lousy taste in heroes.
“So when are you going to see him again?”
“Lunch tomorrow. He wants me to call him to make the arrangements.”
“You have to let me know what happens.”
Rennie frowned at the excitement in her sister’s voice. She was dreading the meeting, and Jackie was acting as though the captain of the football team had just invited her to the prom. “Nothing is going to happen. We’ll have a quick lunch, in a very public place, make the arrangements for Jake’s visit, and that’s it.”
“But you’ll have to be there for the visit, won’t you? You know, on behalf of the foundation.”
“I suppose so.” Unless she could pretend to have the flu that day…
“Does Tyler know you met Zach?” Jackie asked, the amusement still evident in her voice.
“Yeah, Terri told him. Talk about making a bad situation worse.” She couldn’t blame Terri for spilling the beans. Her assistant knew nothing about her relationship with the All-Star pitcher. “Now Tyler is bugging me about meeting Zach. Any idea how I handle that?”
Jackie laughed. “You better not introduce them. Zach would take one look at my nephew and know that was his kid.”
“Don’t say that.” Fear rose up to choke off Rennie’s air supply. “I told him Tyler was eight. He assumed I met Nathan shortly after I left town.”
“Oh what a tangled web we weave,” Jackie said in a sing-song voice.
“Would you stop? This is serious.” Rennie felt terrible lying to her parents and Zach, but she didn’t feel she had a choice. She didn’t want her son to feel the sting of rejection anymore than she wanted Zach to feel some sense of obligation to her or their son. They’d been doing just fine without him and would continue to survive on their own. He could give Tyler anything money could buy and seasons tickets to watch his favorite baseball team in action, but he could never love Tyler more than Rennie did.
“I know it is, hon. I’m sorry.” Jackie sighed. “I know how much you hate lying, not to mention the fact you’re a terrible liar.”
“If that were true, Mama and Daddy would’ve caught on by now.”
Jackie snorted as though she was trying to suppress her laughter. “Oh please, you don’t think they know? Need I remind you that our mama and Mrs. Foster have been friends since they were in high school?”
“So?” Rennie’s eyes were fixed on the field as her son tried to throw his third strike. She’d always believed her parents bought her story about the rebound guy. If they knew the truth…
“So Mama saw Zach when he was Tyler’s age. They must have looked exactly alike.” Jackie’s voice softened. “I’m sorry, sis, but every time I look at your little boy, he reminds me of Zach.”
“Don’t say that,” she whispered, slipping her sunglasses in place to hide her tears.
“It’s true, and you know it.”
“Then why haven’t they said anything to the Fosters about Tyler?”
“Because you’re their baby just like Tyler’s your baby. They would do anything to protect you just like you’d do anything to protect your son.”
Rennie hated to think she’d put her parents in the impossible position of hiding the truth from their close friends. She thought about the people she used to consider her second parents. Zach’s parents were wonderful people, and she knew they would adore her son, but she could never give them the opportunity to meet. Like Jackie said, they would take one look at him and know the truth. “God, Jack, this is such a mess. Maybe coming back home was a mistake. Maybe I should think about moving—”
“Don’t even say it,” Jackie cut in, using the voice she reserved for one of Alyson’s temper tantrums. “You belong right here with your family. Besides, isn’t your therapist always telling you that Tyler needs stability in his life right now? He has that: a school and friends he loves, sports—”
“Okay, fine. I won’t mention it again.” Rennie was smart enough to know she’d lost the battle. “I gotta go. I have to call Zach before the game ends.”