Authors: CJ Snyder
© 2011 by CJ Snyder
Cover design by Jennifer Zane
Printed in the United States of America
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the author. The only exception is brief quotations in published reviews.
I have so many people to thank! First, my family: my mom who was truly my first fan for all your love and support in writing and life. To my daughter who has “helped” me since she was born, first by covering all my IBM Selectric keys in white-out, and later with incredible reading/editing skills. She also provides enormous gobs of support when I need it most. To my dad, whose last words to me were: “Go write your book!” (thanks, Dad!). To my son and daughter-in-law who provide love and balance to my crazy life. To my s'kids, for putting up with a crazy S'mom for all those years! To my delightful grandchildren: Nick, Josiah, Joshua, Naomi, Nathaniel, Rebekah, Samuel and Timothy for giving Gramma your love when she needed it to live.
My friends who ARE Western Colorado for their support for decades (Greece, here we come!). My critique partners who are extraordinary writers and superlatively wonderful people individually and collectively: Cynthia Woolf, Kally Jo Surbeck, Karen Docter, Michele Callahan, and Jennifer Zane. Thanks for never, ever giving up on me, and for keeping me ever-focused on my dreams.
Thanks too, to the many talented writers of Colorado Romance Writers and Romance Writers of America for their unselfish sharing of information and knowledge, as well as their encouragement.
And finally, to my own personal hero, Rufus. I love you!
Kat Jannsen didn’t cry the day they buried Maxwell Crayton.
Plenty of others did. Mourners gathered four and five deep around the long, flag-draped coffin. Even more had packed the church, but Kat skipped the God part.
She stayed back by a tree, feeling out of place, uninvited, unwelcome and wondering about the flag. Military? What other secrets had he kept?
Kat couldn’t say why she’d come. Except she’d loved him, as she’d never loved another human being in her life. So much hope about to be buried in that coffin. So many dreams. So much despair left behind.
His actual death shouldn’t have made a difference. He’d been missing for two months before he died. He’d tossed her away like a used Sunday paper three months before that.
Now Kat shivered in the cold, sleeting rain. She gave her head a vicious shake, warding off the tears that threatened for the first time in days. She straightened her shoulders. You will not cry. She had no right to attend the family’s service, but she represented someone who did.
Her gaze darted over the ring of mourners. They were folding the flag. In just moments she’d know. They’d give the flag to Miriam, the sister who’d raised him. Miriam. Kat’s baby’s one chance at a sane life. Anguish wrenched her heart. Sorrow for Max, sorrow for this baby she already loved too much to keep. Kat fought her tears so she could see the woman who held her future—her child’s very life—in her hands.
The soldier stopped in front of an older woman and Kat frowned. Miriam was forty-three, fifteen years older than Max. This woman looked a decade older than that. Too old? No. She couldn’t be too old. Women had babies in their forties all the time. Bereavement might make her look older.
An even older man supported Miriam, his arm strong and sturdy around her shoulders. Five others surrounded them, forming a protective half-circle around the couple. Two nephews, Max’d said. Nephews with wives, or at least girlfriends? Grown nephews? The woman turned her head in response to something her husband said and Kat caught her breath, nearly undone by the naked pain on the face that so closely resembled Max’s own. The resemblance was nearly as close as that between her own mother and herself.
So this was Miriam. So much grief. She must have loved her brother very much. But Kat hadn’t expected her to be so old. She’d pictured a warm, loving younger couple. For just a moment, she sagged back against the tree.
It’s never easy, Kat. Max’s words, and before that her mother’s. Words to live by. Why would she expect this to be any different?
You don’t have a choice, Kat. Unless you damn your sweet baby before it even draws a breath.
All true. No choices, no options, except to entrust her innocent child into the hands of fate. No. Better to trust Miriam.
More movement at the graveside. Mourners began to greet Miriam and her husband. Time to go. Kat wouldn’t intrude today. But soon. There wasn’t much time.
Max Crayton eased his car over to the side of the road and shut off the engine. His hands were shaking. His heart pounded hard in his chest and loud in his ears. Too loud. Too hard. He focused on the Dairy Queen, on the trees waving gently in the sweet spring breeze. Home. After too many long years, it was over. He was finally free to pick up his life nearly where he’d left it.
You can’t have Kat back.
Regret stung, so sharp and strong he winced. He should go—just start the engine, drive to his sister’s house and get it over with. That’s what he was here to do. But he wasn’t ready. Arrival at Miriam’s heralded a new start. The first day of the rest of your life. His fist connected with the steering wheel. It just wasn’t that damn easy.
Because arrival at Miriam’s also firmly closed the door on his past. That’s why he was here, sitting above Bluff River Falls, Wyoming, watching life go on in the valley below. He’d survived the long years because the past was waiting for him. The ultimate reason for what he’d done. His life. Intact. Complete with Kat. Finishing the simple drive to Miriam’s would end that fantasy forever.
He closed his eyes, fighting the inevitable moment when the door—that door to her—would latch so resolutely behind him. “Kat,” he whispered. “Ah, baby, I’d do it so differently....”
Faster than a single heartbeat.
He’d taken the only path he could. Kat was the most valuable thing he’d lost, but not the only thing.
You knew it going in.
“Not when I agreed,” he argued.
Yeah, well, that ship sailed.
Frowning now, he restarted his car. Miriam would help. His sister always had a knack for making him feel better. She’d mothered him when his elderly parents died. Miriam’s husband, Doug, died during his “absence” and he wondered how his sister was coping. Most importantly, how would she react to her “dead” baby brother?
He wound through streets as familiar as his childhood, pulling to a stop once again, this time in front of her modest, yellow tri-level. For a long minute he sat, staring at the house, surprised by the pink Big Wheel parked defiantly in front of the porch. A neighbor’s kid, probably, as Miriam’s two boys were grown and gone now. Thirty seconds later, he sidestepped the trike, and stood in front of the door. He lifted his hand to knock, and let it fall back to his side.
What would he say? “Hi, sis. Surprise! I’m not dead after all.” Would she understand that he still couldn’t discuss his manufactured death. Would she accept him back into her life? Forgive him?
He lifted his hand again, but the door suddenly flew open, revealing an enchanting pixie of three or four. Perfect little teeth flashed as she grinned at him. “Hiya, Max.” He bit back a frown. She knew him? Long, blond braids swung as she turned her head. “Mommie, Max is home from Heaven.”
Mommie? “No, wait—” Too late. Miriam stepped into view, plumper, grayer than he’d last seen her, but still so sweetly familiar his eyes stung with sudden tears.
“Hi, Sis,” he whispered. “I’m home.” Unconsciously echoing the little girl’s words, he smiled.
Miriam stood frozen. Her gaze never left his eyes. She didn’t even appear to breathe, but he could see her hands moving—clench, unclench, clench—for what seemed hours.
God, don’t let her have a heart attack, he prayed, one hand lifting toward her.
“Max?” she murmured finally, waiting for his nod before she flung open the screen door. Her palm traced the line of his jaw, eyes searching his, until he nodded and smiled. “How?”
“Business,” he hedged, hating the pain in her eyes. “It was business. I couldn’t tell you.” Questions flashed in her eyes and he shook his head. “Still can’t. But it’s over and I’m–”
“Home,” she finished for him. Eyes huge, cupping his face, she stared, unable to believe.
“Maxey, wanna watch me ride my Big Wheel?” A sharp tug on his jeans accompanied the invitation and he shot his sister a smile, his hand warm over hers, before squatting to the imp’s level.
“I’d love to, pumpkin. What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth. But I like Esmeralda better. Come on.” As if she’d known him forever, she took his hand and pulled him back down the stairs. “You can sit there.” Her long braids dipped and twisted in the direction of the bottom stair. “That way you can see me good.”
Max obediently sat. His sister followed slowly, sinking down next to him as the pretty little girl tore up the sidewalk with a high-pitched screech. He glanced away from the rolling noise machine to smile at his sister. “Elizabeth or Esmeralda?”
“Elizabeth. She wishes it was Esmeralda.”
“I sure didn’t expect her.”
Miriam looked troubled for a moment and then returned his smile, gaze flitting back to her blue-eyed daughter. “Neither did we.” She sighed and patted his arm. “Life is often unexpected.”
He caught her hand, lacing up their fingers and squeezing. “Sorry I couldn’t let you know, Mim. I–it wasn’t allowed. I would never have–”
“It’s done, Max.” Miriam cut him off, eyes still on her daughter. “Done. You know about Doug?”
“They told me last week when I was debriefed. I’m sorry, Mim.”
“Debriefed? Is that what they’re calling resurrection, now?” Miriam wondered, a familiar touch of sarcasm tingeing her voice. “Lizzie’s all I’ve got left, Max.” She sounded defensive. He couldn’t blame her. The one thing he did count on was the time it would take to rebuild trust. Her fingers tightened in his. “You don’t know how much she means to me. I’ll do anything–anything–to keep her from being hurt.”
“Just like you did with me.” A whoop from the sidewalk distracted them both. Max grinned. “Lizzie, huh? How did she know my name?”
Mim smiled and for the first time, Max had a glimpse of his old life, reflected there in her sparkling eyes. “Your pictures. You know we’ve always made photographs a bedtime ritual. I didn’t stop including yours, even when we got word you’d disappeared. Then you were dead, but it just wasn’t right to leave you out.” Miriam cleared her throat and continued slowly. “You’ve always been part of her life, like our folks, like Doug.”