Women who have faced pain, loss and heartache. They know the score and never back down. Women who aren’t afraid to love with all their passion and all their strength, who risk everything for their own little piece of heaven…
Men who live their lives on the blade’s edge. Knights in black armor. The only thing more dangerous than crossing these men is loving them…
Mitch Taylor has been playing a very dangerous game and the lines between black and white, good and evil, saint and sinner are all blurred. Just when he thinks the stakes can’t get any higher, in steps the only woman who could ever hurt him and the only one who can heal him. In the space of a skipped heartbeat, he can’t imagine having more to gain…and more to lose.
GENRE: Women’s Romantic Suspense ISBN 978-1-922233-42-4 ASIN: 1329065476 Word Count: 71, 792
There’s a lonely chill
on these black and endless streets,
where innocence dies, shame thrives,
And calls my name…
I know these streets.
I know them like a familiar heartache
that won’t ever go away.
Like a need so deep it echoes
because dreams and reality can never meet.
You say you want to understand,
but you don’t want to feel the cold rain.
You don’t want to scream so the wind
carries the pain far away.
What’s gone comes alive again
and haunts me on these streets.
It’s what I always need but can never have.
So deep it echoes
Because heartbreak and forgiveness
can never meet…
“Tell us a story, Grampa!” Missy Bennett cried as her older sister drew her comforter up to her chin and proceeded to tuck her in.
Brenda shook her head gently at the childish request, yet deep in her grown-up, eight-year-old heart, she, too, wanted to hear a story. Her most favorite story.
“A story?” Grandpa Bennett feigned surprise, his kind face filled with mischief. “But you’re far too old for bedtime stories, aren’t you?”
Brenda slid under her own comforter in the twin bed beside Missy’s. She resigned herself to hearing another mermaid tale that her grandfather would inevitably make magical with his fertile imagination. Missy had been asking for mermaid stories ever since her friend Elizabeth’s mermaid-themed birthday party.
Missy sat up, restless the way she usually was until sleep finally claimed her. “No, Grampa. Tell us about the princess and the black rose again.”
Nestling down in her pillow, Brenda couldn’t help smiling. This was the one she’d longed for but felt herself too mature to request. From the first time her grandfather told this particular story, all the strings in her heart had been played. I want to rescue the black rose. I would give anything to be the princess who redeems the unredeemable.
After leaving the room in the glow of only one lamp, Grandfather Bennett sat in his rocking chair. His cornflower blue eyes met Brenda’s. They shared an indulgent smile before he began to spin his fantastical web.
“Once upon time, there lived a princess named Rose who loved the very flowers she’d been named for. This princess could make even the most stubborn flower grow. It was as if she had magic in her thumbs. Her father, the king, teased her often by calling her his beloved Princess Green Thumb.
“From an early age, she worked the soil throughout the kingdom, planting and caring for her cherished roses–red ones, white ones, yellow ones, and pink ones. Every color of the rainbow. But the one she’d heard rumors of, had never seen and so could never grow, was the elusive black rose.
“Legend told that the black rose had once been the bravest knight in the kingdom, enchanted by a witch. At one time, his heart had been good and noble. Alas, the horrors in his life and the way he had fought for justice had turned his heart black and, without goodness, his deeds proved evil until thorns obscured every part in his life. His heart became infertile and hard. No goodness could grow there. A witch tricked the wayward knight, and he was changed into a black rose, imprisoned forever in a fortressed dungeon far from any other.
“Each day the princess walked the cobblestone streets of the kingdom, searching for the black rose. And each day her travels took her further from the castle in her relentless search for the legend she sought.
“One day the princess came to a dark castle. In the village, Princess Rose had heard that an evil witch abided alone and coveted her solitude. Her castle was a fortress. Through the fence, Rose spotted a garden. A garden of black roses!
“Quickly, the princess climbed the fence, certain no one would catch her. As soon as she picked one of the roses, the spellbound rose cried out instinctively to its evil mistress. The witch appeared in her menacing cloak. The cry of the rose frightened Rose, but she refused to let it go even when the thorns became embedded deep within her palm.
“‘Since thou has done what is not allowed and plucked one of my enchanted roses,’ the witch said coldly, towering over the trembling princess, ‘thou shall suffer. For the rest of thy life, thou shall search for the black rose. Thou will search in the coldest rain, a rain without end. If and when thou ever findeth the black rose, only then shall this curse be broken, the rain shall stop, and thou shall have the love so long denied thee.’
“The black rose vanished from the princess’s hand, but the blood from the thorns remained with perpetual scars.
“Years passed. In cold rain that never ceased, Rose traveled far in her search for the elusive black rose and the love she had been denied.
“At long last, she came upon a forbidden keep. Dark clouds covered the black stones, and yet she felt her heart come to life. She entered the black gate and went inside, deep into the very dungeons. There she saw the legendary black rose, trapped in hard, infertile soil.
“‘How ever did you get here?’ she asked the rose.
“Did the dying rose shiver at her voice? She could not be sure, but she reached out to the beautiful rose. With her hands, she patiently and lovingly broke up the hard ground around it. Beside the black rose, she planted the seed of her own heart. Even here the rain fell, and she could see the rose transforming before her very eyes. In moments, there stood before her the legendary black knight, tall and handsome and brave. In his hand, which he held out to her, lay the black rose. No longer did the thorns choke out the goodness of his heart. Fresh blood flowed on his palm from the rose he held.
“When the princess took the rose from the knight, the curse the witch had cast over her was broken at long last. The cold rain stopped, both of their wounds were healed, and they found true love together for all time.”
Grandfather’s story ended, soft and magical. After a moment, he rose and went to kiss Missy, already fast asleep. When he came to Brenda and pressed a gentle kiss on her forehead, she whispered, “Grampa, is it real? Is true love real? Or just a fairy tale?”
His smile reassured her of what she’d decided long ago couldn’t be reality yet never stopped longing for. “It’s real, ragamuffin. Love is real,” he told her. “The hard part is never giving up until you find it.”
Thirty-two years later…
Mitch Taylor pulled back the dusty curtain on the glass panel of his front door. The same car had driven past his house for the tenth time today. Bradshaw or Carson? The sapphire Lexus ES wasn’t familiar to him, nor could he tell from the distance who drove it.
Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) at the DEA’s Los Angeles Field Division, Eric Bradshaw, had left a recorded phone message for Mitch when he was released that morning. “You may have noticed you got out of your thirty-month prison sentence much earlier than expected,” the agent told him. “Heath and I want you to finish the job. You’re not doing anyone any good in the slammer, are you?”
Bradshaw, you gutsy SOB. You’re the one who set up the drug bust I served nineteen months for in the first place. But I figured at least it got me away from pretending to be Carson’s right-hand man.
Mitch had worked undercover as notorious drug dealer Carson Ortega’s stooge for longer than he cared to admit. Carson’s message following Bradshaw’s on the answering machine seemed to imply the dealer thought Mitch had taken the fall for him when he went to jail and now Carson wanted to welcome him back into the fold.
Carson worked for his powerful, untouchable cousin, Mareno Ortega, head of the Ortega drug cartel and a man rumored to be a machine. He cared for no one and nothing, but, like his uncle before him, he refused to tolerate disloyalty in his men. He’d risk toppling his own organization to deal ruthlessly with any inside betrayal. If Carson screwed up, he’d die just like anyone else who betrayed Mareno. It was how the most notorious drug lord in the world had stayed anonymous and on top for so long.
For the part of the five years Mitch had been working with Carson, Mareno had been very pleased with his cousin. Carson ascribed that success to Mitch. He believed if he lost Mitch, he’d no longer have the means to keep his cousin happy with him. The messages he left on Mitch’s machine to call him back or come to see him bordered on the desperate.
Twenty years I been playing everybody’s game except my own.
The self-righteous DEA Assistant Administrator Operational Support Division Howard Heath had asked Mitch to go undercover for them, on a freelance basis, twenty years ago. Mitch had been a kid. He’d done it because, at first, the prick and his initial accomplice–Bradshaw’s predecessor, Jerry Krentz–had made him a promise they still hadn’t made good on.
A promise they’ll never fulfill. I’ve accepted that. And, by damn, I’m not going back. They can find another asshole willing to jump through their hoops.
Mitch moved back from the window and picked up the phone on the foyer table reluctantly. He’d been avoiding this call since he walked out of prison that morning and made his way to his house in Long Beach.
The closest thing he had to a friend, his undercover partner, answered with, “Mitchie?”
“Snake.” Snake had been the one to tell him Bradshaw set him up.
“Ya took your time. Expected to hear from ya this morning. This day’s almost shot, and ya finally call,” his friend and DEA freelance partner groused.
Mitch pulled the curtain aside once more. “Yeah. Anything going on I should know about?”
“Been layin’ low, Mitch.”
When you played the fence the way he and Snake had for so many years, laying low when trouble came was the only option.
“Carson?” Mitch guessed.
“Took the lawyer.”
Mitch frowned. “Hinze?”
“Yeah, Frank Hinze’s disappeared. Nobody knows where he is, not even Bradshaw.”
“You know what happened?”
“Carson took him out on one of his little midnight cruises in the Pacific. Body probably won’t be recovered. No stretch that Carson had to’ve found out his own lawyer was feedin’ the agency info for immunity.”
Mitch swore richly. Hinze’s cover had been foolproof. He only knew that because Bradshaw made Hinze their go-between during the time when Carson tried to discover who the mole in his operation was. “So Carson thinks he can use me again, and Bradshaw’s inclined to let him.”
“Somethin’ like that. Now that he’s strung ya up for a year an’ half. They think Carson’ll trust ya now, Mitchie, ’cause ya took the fall for him by goin’ to prison. They’re thinkin’ he’ll be ready to take you straight to his cousin.”
His gaze narrowed through the stained curtain, Mitch shook his head. “I’m getting out, Snake. Time they let you out, too.”
Mitch pulled the phone from his ear when Snake laughed loudly, without mirth. “Sounds good to me, but ya know it ain’t in the cards anytime in the near future, man. Between Carson and Bradshaw, they got us by the balls.”
That much was true. But then Snake didn’t know about the weekly encrypted disk Mitch had arranged for a legitimate computer business in San Francisco to download and then deposit in a bank safe box.
“Don’t trust nobody, man. I’m tellin’ ya,” Snake warned.
“You can trust me, Snake. Keep in touch,” Mitch said before he hung up, took one last look out the window, then went to shower.
When the hot water finally petered out, he dragged himself out of the stall that could have used a good cleaning. His house hadn’t seen disinfectant since he went to prison. Maybe longer. Unfortunately, at the moment it was the only thing he had on his agenda.
Using the towel to rub the condensation off the mirror, he saw heavy stubble on his face despite how he’d shaved that morning. He rubbed his hand over his chin. The dark shadow made him look like a demon. He grinned.
Looking like a demon’s an improvement over the fat, wasted psychotic that reflected back at me before I took the fall for my prize-winning bosses.
Mitch had gotten to the point where he didn’t care about anyone or anything. S*t if he knew whether he was the good guy or the bad guy. He’d helped put away dozens of drug dealers. But he suspected he’d also inadvertently destroyed countless innocent lives along the way. One thing the DEA had wanted from him–to make his undercover assignments completely realistic. Use drugs, sell drugs to anybody. Don’t give a damn about anyone because that would look suspicious. Drug dealers trusted him. Carson was the only one who hadn’t completely bought into him. The man trusted very few people. Because of that failure, Mitch still hadn’t gotten what the DEA wanted from the dealer after years undercover.
But he wasn’t going back. To Carson or Bradshaw. For the first time in his life, he respected himself and he’d begun the painful process of forgiving himself for things that may or may not have been his fault in the first place.
Prison had done him more good than he’d ever expected. He’d worked out, lost the flab he’d accumulated in the blurred years he’d been dancing to the piper. At forty-three, he didn’t have much, didn’t want much. At the very least, he’d come to the place where he didn’t look in the mirror and see his sorry SOB of a father anymore. He had a molecule of self-respect now. No way would he risk losing the one thing he’d earned–truly earned–on his own.
A soft rumble, like a car parking close by, followed by a door slamming and footsteps, made Mitch go stark still. Turning off the bathroom light plunged the house into darkness. He skulked down the hall to the rear of the house, then slipped out to the backyard. It wouldn’t be the first time his neighbors saw him in the buff.
The paved path that rounded the house was covered with debris from neglect. He had to grit his teeth when he stepped on small pebbles and sticks. Making his way from overgrown bushes to wide trees, he reached an alcove in the side of the house where could see the street in front. The same car that had passed by about a dozen times that evening was parked along the curb. The street lamps did nothing to reveal whether anyone was inside. One of Carson’s lightweight flunkies no doubt.
Mitch darted a glance to the front porch. The light there had burned out years ago and he hadn’t gotten around to replacing it. A silhouette stepped up and crossed the dark porch to the door. Without a sound, Mitch slunk around the corner and up in back of the guy. Grabbing him, he yanked him around and got hold of the collar. Buttons scattered on the porch. He slammed the guy up against the house with an arm across his puny neck. A strangled gasp penetrated his mission to get the upper hand. Not a dude…
The snap of nylon and plastic and firm, feminine flesh spilling out gave him his second clue. A flower garden in springtime filled his nostrils. The perfume registered so familiar, his body knew the truth before his mind accepted it.
Brenda. Ah, man…
In the darkness, their faces a mere inch apart, he saw her wide eyes, her mouth opened to scream. He immediately let her go. Despite the shadows, he could see that his rough handling had torn the top three or four buttons from her blouse and also broken the snap of her bra. Breasts that still haunted him were almost visible just before, with a cry, her arms came up to hide the damage.
“Mitch?” she demanded hoarsely.
S*t, he’d hurt her throat, assuming… But then why wouldn’t he assume? She was literally the last person he expected to see on his doorstep.
“What’re you doing here, Brenda? You okay? Did I hurt you?”
Her swallow sounded loud in the stillness of the warm, windless evening as she continued her attempt to right herself after his attack. “I’m okay. I’m fine. I told you I was coming. Is this how you greet visitors these days?”
He heard only one thing. ‘I told you I was coming.’ “When did you tell me you were coming?”
“Your answering machine!” she insisted. “I left a message this morning because, well, I knew you’d be getting out today. I guess I should have realized.”
After hearing Bradshaw’s and Carson’s messages, he’d taken out the tape in the old machine and tossed it in the trash. He had no desire to hear more.
Mitch shook his head.
Brenda, here, after what happened last time we were together.
He hadn’t wanted to think about her. He’d tried to forget their ill-advised yet haunting night together. But every last detail had tortured him to the point that he knew if he didn’t stop thinking about it, he’d drink himself blind just to wash the memories away temporarily. He’d gotten used to little or no sleep so he wouldn’t have to see her face in his dreams.
“I didn’t get your message,” he muttered, embarrassed at his over-the-top reaction to his visitor. He leaned against one of the pillars bracketing the porch, not looking at her until the silence became unbearable.
When he glanced up, her eyes narrowed abruptly, then widened again. “Are you…?” she choked out. “Mitch, are you naked?”
He couldn’t prevent the chuckle that leaked out of him. “Yeah. You better come in.”
Despite his invitation, he didn’t want her here. If he had to see her, he’d have to remember she was an angel and he was the devil. He’d have to remember how she’d loved him, more than any man could deserve, and he qualified as the least of all men. How she’d walked out on him seventeen years ago with all the justification in the world in her suitcases.
She bent uncertainly to pick up her purse from the wood flooring of the porch. Without looking at her, he pushed open the heavy front door and led the way into the house, leaving the path they navigated dark. “I’ll get some clothes on,” he said inside the hall that lead to a wide-open living room to the left, kitchen to the right, and bedrooms straight ahead. He strode unselfconsciously to his room and dressed in a pair of jeans. Only when he returned to the hall did he flip on the light to find her sighing in defeat, her back to him as she did something.
“What’s the matter?” he asked warily.
With chagrined reluctance, she turned to him. She didn’t need to say a word. Her bra was broken. With only half the buttons, her only option in keeping herself covered amounted to clutching the sides of her silky blouse together tightly at all times.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
But not half as sorry as he knew he would be. Brenda came to him with a reason, and that meant he’d have to look at her, want her like this, until she managed to pluck up the courage to spit out whatever she needed.
“You want a t-shirt of mine or something? At least you won’t have to hold it.”
She agreed almost too quickly. He gave her directions to his bedroom and told her to help herself. He went into the living room and, in the next five minutes, willed himself not to consider why she’d come this time. When she stepped down into the sunken living room where he stood with an arm resting on the fireplace mantle, Mitch almost groaned out loud at the sight of her.
S*t, man, you only made things worse.
When he’d walked in the nightclub she worked in twenty-three years earlier, the thing he’d loved most about Brenda came down to her lack of confidence and innate shyness. The next thing was her body. She was all curves, not the least of which were breasts that could make a Playboy model look flat. His t-shirt was a crazy combination of huge on the bottom and the sleeves and nicely stretched over her bountiful breasts. He could see everything as if she didn’t wear a thing. By her expression, Mitch realized she knew it, too. Last time she’d looked this uncertain…
She sat on the sofa farthest from him, but the distance didn’t matter. She occupied the room, and not a lot else existed for him.
He sank into his chair, for the first time in months wishing for a cigarette so he could ignore the silence punctuated by every tick of the clock. Why did she have to be more beautiful than when she’d belonged to him? She’d never believe it, he knew without any thought. No more than she’d believe he loved her warm, cornflower blue eyes, her sharp little chin, and the silky blond curls that topped short, tapered hair that ended at her shoulders.
Swallowing hard, she cast furtive glances at him, frowning as though she didn’t like what she saw. Considering that he’d gone from two hundred and fifty pounds of flab and black, greasy hair that hung all around his face to a honed one-ninety and well-trimmed hair, he’d anticipated a different reaction.
“You cut your hair,” she murmured in surprise. “You look like you’re twenty again.”
When her gaze skittered away, slight desperation in her eyes, he realized the same truth that had slammed into him last time Brenda showed up on his doorstep unexpectedly. She was attracted to him again, whether she liked it or not.
Brenda Bennett was out of his league. And he’d done the unthinkable to make sure she faced it long years ago, killing himself in the process. He wouldn’t hurt her ever again.
Yet he found himself saying in a low tone, “You look beautiful, babe.”
Her face filled with color, with pleasure.
He missed those sessions of forcing her to believe her own worth. But the last time he’d tapped into her bottomless well of passion, she’d crawled away, ashamed for opening herself up to him again.
Mitch knew the secret side of Brenda that needed patience, lack of inhibitions, and, most of all, somebody prepared to receive the full impact of her incredible love. Every time she’d given him her body and opened wide her heart, she shook him to the core.
Yeah, the hardest part of loving this woman is being loved twice as much in return.
* * * *
The room felt uncomfortably warm. Brenda’s hands and thighs trembled. Or maybe the room trembled and she felt uncomfortably warm.
Being back here again was even worse than she’d feared.
She could see a glimpse of the Mitch she’d met as a young adult just out of high school. His jeans weren’t fully buttoned. His body bulged with muscle. He was healthy. Sober. When she thought about how she’d seen him completely naked after presumably skulking around his own house to grab her…
No other man could be sexier to her. But she couldn’t help wondering how his senses became so attuned, and why he’d greet anyone at his door the way he had her. What had possessed him to stalk buck naked around his house and grab her like that? Sure, she’d driven back and forth in front of his house countless times for the last three hours, trying to pluck up her nerve to go to his door. Had he expected her to be a robber or, worse, a Jehovah’s witness?
Without a doubt, something about him had changed as she’d suspected the last time she came to him. Though he could never be considered good looking–his face resembled something too cruel and dark, radiating his dislike of himself too violently–there was a difference there. She no longer sensed utter self-loathing coming from his unfathomable black eyes. The danger in him used to stem, she’d assumed, from the fact that he’d cared about nothing. She hadn’t been surprised about the drug charges he’d been imprisoned for almost two years ago. She suspected now that jail-time had done him good, completing the process that had started just prior to his sentence.
She’d come here today despite her business partner’s insistence against it because she believed Mitch had a right to know the consequences of their reckless night of passion.
He sat in a chair across the room, watching her openly, lazily, waiting for her to explain her presence. Why did he always look so calm while she felt like she couldn’t even remember her own name? Darn that he doesn’t look like a ravenous vampire after being shut away so long in prison.
“You still with that old guy?”
Mitch’s question surprised her and made her realize that he could very well believe she’d come here to tell him she planned to marry Adam Kuenhemund, co-owner of her realty business. “I told you, Adam is my business partner. And he’s a friend. That’s all.”
“Not what he wants with you, babe,” he muttered. Abruptly he stood and went to the multi-paned window. Leaning one arm on the frame, he kept his back to her.
Brenda admired every sharply defined muscle in his back, his broad shoulders. Her chest tightened even more and she foolishly covered it. Though Mitch wasn’t looking at her at the moment, he knew every inch of her. He’d once told her he visualized her naked all the time–he couldn’t get enough of her that way to suit him.
His every glance brought those words to her mind. She did feel completely naked, without a bra, in this t-shirt that smelled of his sandalwood cologne.
She crossed the worn carpet to him, not giving herself time to take a deep breath. “Mitch, I need to tell you something. I couldn’t tell you before. There was no time with, well, prison.”
He turned his head.
She could smell the soap on his skin, the shampoo in his short hair that fell recklessly over his forehead. Somehow those reckless locks softened the cruelty of his face with the thick slashes of black eyebrow, straight and proud nose, and the unyielding mouth. The first time she’d looked into his face, he’d shown her tenderness. Somehow she’d never forgotten that, despite everything that had happened to make her want to forget.
Curbing her impulse to brush those wayward strands back, to touch the granite lines of his jaw with her fingertips, she lowered her gaze from his intense, unrelenting one. “Do you remember the last time I came here?” she said.
Why should she assume he would remember it? God knew he’d slept with countless women right under her nose for how many of the years they’d been together. She couldn’t assume he remembered their last night together any more than he remembered any of the other encounters he’d had in his lifetime.
“Down to the last time you shuddered in my arms.” His voice was soft and rough. Surprising her, he brought his cool hand to her fiery cheek.
Swallowing the panic threatening to overwhelm her, she took a step back. “I didn’t come here for a repeat.”
“Never thought you did, babe. You don’t often make mistakes more than once.”
His words pierced her. She could see he’d changed. Self-hate no longer fit him.
Somehow Mitch seemed to know she needed to sit down. He steered her back to the couch, plunked her down, then pulled up a footstool in front of her.
And I believed he’d be the one thrown off-balance by this visit.
She ran her hands through the hair at the back of her neck. Mitch had destroyed her equilibrium before she’d ever entered his house. She didn’t know how to get it back.
“I just don’t know how to tell you this, Mitch,” she said in little more than a whisper.
“Just say it.” The hoarseness of his tone reminded her he expected her to announce her marriage to Adam.
The words wouldn’t form. Unable to speak the truth so boldly, she did the only thing she could do. She pulled from her purse the photograph she’d so carefully picked out with him in mind.
Frowning, Mitch looked at it. His expression became confused, and he glanced from the face in the photo back to her.
“I would have told you sooner, but I didn’t see how that was possible. It seemed cruel…to go there, go to the prison, and tell you through the glass.”
“Tell me what?” Even more than before, his voice sounded ragged.
Brenda swallowed again. “You’re a father, Mitch.”
Another time his expression of disbelieving shock might have amused her. He stared as if he still waited for her to tell him the real reason she’d come here.
Committed now, she forged ahead. “She’s ten months old… Well, you can do the math yourself. Her name is Haylee. Haylee Julia.”
He took the photo from her, but there was something different about the way he stared at it now. Brenda knew he was seeing their daughter’s cornflower blue eyes and pointy little chin. He could also see himself in her with the thick, ebony-black hair and stubborn determination in Haylee’s expression. Brenda had deliberately chosen one of the happiest photographs of their little girl. The sweet, silly grin she wore brushed all the cobwebs and shadows from Brenda’s heart each time she saw it.
His clenched fist pressed against his jaw, whitening his lips.
“I was shocked, too. Women going on forty don’t have babies. But she’s… I love her so much, I couldn’t regret what happened even if I wanted to. She’s my whole life now.”
Mitch covered his eyes, but a moment later, his gaze sought the photo again. Brenda had never seen him so floored. He made no effort to speak. She would have sold most of what she had to know what he was thinking, disjointed as it had to be.
“I’m not asking anything of you, Mitch,” she said quietly. “I don’t want or need financial help. You don’t have to see her or get to know her. And we’re certainly not living in a day and age where a baby together means marriage. But she’s your daughter, Mitch, and it wouldn’t be fair to you or her if you didn’t have the chance to meet her. I want you to participate in her life if you want to. In any way at all. It’s your decision. But I think you’d fall in love with her if you’ll just give yourself a chance.”
His tormented expression almost unleashed the fierce need inside her to ease his pain. “Please. Say something. Anything.”
His tone was raw. “What do you want? How could you come here? Like some angel of salvation when you should’ve spit on my grave long ago? What did I do to deserve…?”
More than anything, she wanted to move closer to him again. “You’re not dead, Mitch, and you’re not worthless. I’ve never believed you were. All I’m doing is handing you what’s rightfully yours. She’s as much yours as she is mine.” Her tone betrayed her conflict–she wanted to console him, but she couldn’t let herself.
She knew he wouldn’t agree. He’d take the fall, but he’d never take the credit.
“Haylee?” he spoke his daughter’s name in a broken whisper.
Long ago, Mitch had told her that his drug-obsessed father had sold Mitch’s sister for a fix. Ever since, Mitch had sought Julia, needing to know if she was dead or alive. Naming Haylee after the sister he’d grieved for had seemed right, though Brenda knew very few of the details of that pivotal event in Mitch’s life.
“I thought maybe you could come this weekend to see her.”
Shock jarred her like a sucker punch. How could he refuse to see his child?
“I can’t wait that long,” he muttered. “Tomorrow.”
A sob flew into her throat. “Tomorrow?”
“Does that work? I don’t know when…”
“Anytime. Do you know where I live now? I moved–”
His gaze again fixed on the photograph that seemed to haunt him. “Can I keep this?”
“The picture? Of course. She’s a lot like you. She’s the most stubborn kid I’ve ever known. The past two weeks, she’s cruising everywhere. Give her another week, and I guarantee she’ll be tearing around the house without needing any support.”
Brenda stopped her motherly babbling when she saw the pain in his expression. He’d missed so much of Haylee’s life, and he seemed to realize it. His reaction far surpassed her expectations–certainly a hundredfold over what Adam had predicted.
There was no excuse for her to stay any longer. She’d told him what she came to. But she wanted to console him and touch him the way Haylee had touched her barren-in-every-way life before she’d come along. But she had to trust that Haylee herself would give Mitch the comfort and miracle he needed.
As she said an awkward goodbye, Brenda reiterated the list of reasons why she couldn’t get involved with Mitch Taylor again, reasons why she needed to distance herself now. Chief among them was that someone should protect her fragile heart. She had to protect herself because Mitch had taught her personally she couldn’t trust anyone else to do it for her.