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"I've been a complete ass." Karen Ellis glanced apprehensively across the dining-room table at her older sister, Samantha Branson.
"Yes, you have." Sam softened the accusation with a smile. "Want to tell me why?"
Sam's birthday party guests had left hours earlier, and there was no longer any way Karen could escape the inevitable explanation that had waited years to be put into words.
Nervous about how Sam would take her admission of guilt, Karen put off explaining by repeatedly running a piece of yellow ribbon between her thumb and forefinger. As it slid between her fingers, the ribbon's curl became tighter and tighter, until it mirrored Karen's coiled nerves. Needing no reminder of how much the mere thought of having this conversation had made her skin crawl, Karen threw the ribbon back into the pile of torn and crumpled wrapping paper, empty gift boxes and mangled bows that littered the table.
"Well?" Sam prompted.
Karen glanced at her. Even though Sam pressed her for an answer, Karen could tell from her sister's guarded expression that she had no more desire to open the door to their very painful past than Karen did. The uncomfortable silence of two strangers trying to find common ground enveloped them.
Sam shifted forward, determination evident in her set mouth. "What happened to us, Karen? We were close once, when we were little. When did it all fall apart?"
Karen took a fortifying breath. No matter how difficult and no matter what the consequences, the time had come to clean the slate and finally be honest with both herself and Sam.
"I guess it started when I began blaming you for Dad walking out on us and Mom living vicariously through you in her quest for fameand, in the process, forgetting she had two daughters." Karen looked away, ashamed now of how long she'd allowed her petty, misplaced blame to stand between them. "But you were as much a victim as I was." She shrugged. "Maybe more so. After having a long talk with Dad today at the party, I understand why he left. It couldn't have been easy for him watching Mom steal our childhood by treating me like a stepchild and dragging you from beauty pageant to beauty pageant." All the years of loneliness that had burned inside her seemed to melt away with each word she spoke. She pushed on.
"You were the shining star and I became the invisible child. Samantha's hanger-on sister. Mom's unwanted burden. Somewhere along the way I began to resent you for it. It wasn't until years later that I realized that Mom never gave you a choice. By that time, I didn't know how to fix things between us." Her eyes burned with unshed tears. "Can we fix it?" She blinked the tears away and met her sister's gaze. "Can we?"
"Isn't that what we're doing?" Sam smiled and squeezed Karen's hand. "It's in the past, sweetie. If I've learned anything in the last few months, it's that we have to let the past rest and not taint today. Life is too short for should-haves. Sometimes we're so busy worrying about what was that we miss out on what can be."
Emotion clogging her throat, Karen could only nod. She didn't think she deserved Sam's forgiveness, but she was infinitely glad that she'd given it, especially now. Never had she needed her sister more.
"The Ellis sisters are reunited, so where are the smiles?" Tilting her head, Sam frowned. "Could it be that burying the hatchet isn't the only thing that brought you here?"
"Not entirely. Truth is, I'm" Karen swallowed hard, summoning the courage to let go of her precious secret.
Sam got up and came around the table. She drew up a chair beside Karen and put her arm around her sister's shoulders. "You're what?" She waited, but Karen still couldn't find the words. "Come on. We're sisters. Sisters share." Sam laid her forehead against Karen's. "Remember how we used to whisper our secrets to each other after Mom and Dad went to bed?"
Unable to force words past the clog of emotion in her throat, Karen nodded.
Her sister squeezed her hand again. "Well, I'm still willing to be your confidante."
Karen raised her head. "You're the best."
Responding with a grin and a wink, Sam looked happier than Karen could remember ever seeing her. "That's what A.J. tells me."
The all-too-familiar ache of loneliness that had squeezed her heart for the last three months grew inside Karen. Sam was so lucky to have A.J. Her handsome detective husband doted on her, and anyone with eyes in their head could see the depth of his love for his wife.
"Sam, I'm pregnant."
The words tumbled out before Karen could stop them, but as she said them, she felt the tension drain from her body. Until that very moment, she hadn't realized how much it had been costing her to carry this burden alone.
Sam's mouth fell open. Surprise and delight danced across her features. Then she hugged Karen. "That's wonderful. When are you due? What about your husband? I didn't even know you'd gotten married." Her eyes filled with questions, Sam leaned closer and studied Karen for a long moment. "Why do I get the feeling that you're not a happy mother-to-be?"
Sunshine sifted through the window and beat down on Karen's cold, tightly clenched hands. Amazed that talking about this could still hurt so much, she reached deep down inside and summoned the words of explanation. "I'm thrilled about the baby, but I'm not married, Sam. The baby's father, Paul Jackson, died three months ago in a forest fire in upstate New York." Old pain muffled the last few words. She cleared her throat of emotion. "He didn't know about the baby. Aside from my doctor and now you, no one else knows."
Smoothing her hand over her flat stomach, Karen couldn't help but smile. At three and a half months, she wasn't showing yet, which had helped her keep her secret. The weight loss she'd suffered from morning sickness and the shock of Paul's death had kept her pregnancy concealed from everyone but her doctor. And that's the way she'd wanted it, until now.
Paul's child was all she had left of him, and she wanted to treasure that for a bit longer. Not having the opportunity to mourn Paul in the normal way, the process had been hard for Karen to weather, but she'd made it. But only by reminding herself of her responsibility to her child. Memories of Paul continued to haunt her. But memories weren't the only thing on her mind.
"There's something else." Karen grasped Sam's arm in a desperate grip. "I want this baby to have the family we never had. I want to find Paul's family and tell them about the baby. Will you help me?"
Perplexed, Sam stared at Karen. "I don't understand. Why don't you know where his family is? Didn't you meet them at his funeral?"
Memories bombarded Karen again. "I didn't go to Paul's funeral. I didn't even know anything had happened until I called the ranger station to find out why I hadn't heard from him. By that time, Paul had been dead for weeks. The funeral and burial had already been held.
"As for family, Paul and I never discussed his or mine." She felt the heat of her cheeks blushing slightly. "We only had a few months together, and I guess we were too busy being in love to care about our pasts. Then again, maybe we sensed that neither of us wanted to discuss our families. All I know is that he was from the Midwest and he graduated from Cornell University's School of Forestry, where he met Jesse Kingston, his fellow ranger and best friend. I've contacted the university and they gave me the same runaround as the Adirondack Mountains Preserve's ranger stationit's against policy to give out any personal information."
Sam thought for a moment. "Did you do a search for Paul on the Internet?"
Karen grimaced. "Do you know how many Paul Jacksons there are in the Midwest? Millions. I don't even know which state to focus on."
Sam sighed. "Jeez, Karen, I want to help you, but I'm not sure how." Deep in thought, she drummed her fingertips on the tabletop. "What about his friend, this Jesse what's-his-name? Wouldn't he know how to locate Paul's family?"
"Jesse Kingston." Karen sighed. "Another dead end. When I called to talk to him, he'd just left for home on medical leave, and the ranger station wouldn't give me his address."
A broad grin broke across Sam's face. "Well, I happen to have connections within the firefighting community, and my connections have connections." She picked up the phone, punched in a number from memory and waited. "Rachel, I need a favor. Can you find the home address for a forest ranger named Jesse Kingston? He's based in upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains Preserve." Sam paused. "I'll explain later, just find it for me as soon as you can and call me back." She covered the receiver with her hand and turned to Karen. "Do you want her to get Paul's info, too?"
Knowing she hadn't told Sam everything, Karen hesitated for a moment, then shook her head. She had to speak to Jesse herself. "This is enough of an imposition. If she can just get Jesse's address, I'm sure I can get Paul's information from him."
For a long moment, Sam frowned at her, but finally removed her hand from the receiver. "Okay, Rachel, I guess that's it. Thanks. I owe you one." She hung up. "Rachel Sutherland is my best friend and the head of F.I.S.T., the Fire Investigation Special Team. She knows people she can contact. She's going to do some digging and get back to me."
Relief washed through Karen. Because it was pure speculation on her part, she hadn't told Sam her other reason for wanting to find Jesse Kingston.
Paul had been a first-class forest ranger, and she was having a hard time believing that his death was an accident. She recalled vividly how upset he'd been when he'd related how a new ranger had done something very like what they claimed Paul had done. The young ranger had nearly died for his lack of good judgment.
It didn't make sense that Paul would walk into a wall of fire that he knew would probably kill him. If anyone could tell her why Paul had done something so completely out of character, it would be Jesse.
"The mongrel son returns," Jesse Kingston jeered softly to himself.
He backed his battered brown SUV into one of the two open parking spots in front of the Diner, his tiny hometown of Bristol's favorite gathering place. Turning off the engine, he glanced first at the array of pickup trucks and cars crowding the lot, then at his watch. The trip south from the mountains to Bristol should have taken only a little over an hour. If it hadn't been for the weekend traffic, he'd have been here a long time ago.
More to the point, if his boss, Chief Ranger Hank Thompson, hadn't ordered him home to "get his head on straight," Jess wouldn't be here at all. He'd be in the only place he'd ever considered to be his real homethe forest.
He could still hear Hank's words ringing in his ears. "You're driving everyone around here crazy with your questions about Paul's death. I want the questions to stop, and I want you to go home and get a handle on your life." He'd taken a deep breath, and when he spoke again his voice was less strident. "Dammit! It's not rocket science, Jess, and there's no big mystery. The official report was that Jackson stupidly walked into a bad situation and paid the price. We all make mistakes. For your sake and mine, let it go."
Jess couldn't let it go. Hank was wrong. Paul didn't make mistakes. Jess had known him since they'd graduated from forestry school. They'd been through hell together, fighting forest fires shoulder to shoulder. Paul was the best. He'd risen up the ranks fast and eventually became Jess's superior officer. But they'd remained friends. Paul had never pulled rank on Jess until that day three months ago when he'd ordered Jess to stay behind while he'd walked into the trees and never came out.
Jesse hadn't told Hank, but just because he was back in Bristol didn't mean he'd stop trying to find out what actually happened to Paul. Before Jess could find any inner peace, he had to know if it was his faultif he'd followed Paul, would it have made a difference and would Paul be alive today?
Familiar guilt flooded through him. Jess rubbed his hand over his tired, burning eyes and wished for the thousandth time that he hadn't obeyed Paul's orders. If he'd just followed him anyway, if he'd
He cut off the painful musings and let his gaze wander, taking in the lazy street activity. The town hadn't changed much. Elma Davidson hobbled toward the library with the latest bestseller tucked under her arm, a cane supporting her arthritic body. Marv Adams still had the For Sale sign in the Gazette window, right where it had been for twenty years. The Garden Club had planted a colorful array of summer flowers around the flagpole in the center of the small, grassy town square.
How deceptive it all was. Beneath its lazy, welcoming exterior, Jess could almost hear the hum of gossip that would begin when the townspeople found out Frank Kingston's son was back. The same gossip mill had worked overtime when Jess's mother had left his father and then again when Jess had come back here at the age of nine.
Jesse sighed. Despite the familiar sights and the fact that he'd grown up here, he still felt like a stranger. Would there ever come a time when he thought of this place as home?
He started to open the car door, but hesitated. Did he really want to stay? He could just back the car out and no one would know he'd even been there.
You've been running away from things all your life. Isn't it about time you stopped?
Unsure if he was ready to face his childhood demons, Jess conceded that running hadn't helped before and probably wouldn't help now. He was here, and he might as well stay. Stuffing his apprehension in his back pocket, Jesse climbed from the car, closed the door and then went into the diner.