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"Amber! You need to get out to the bus stop now!" Maggie Brown flipped over another paper on the desk. More bills. They just kept piling up.
"I'm going." Amber bounced into the dining room with her backpack strapped tightly to her shoulders, her dark hair swinging from side to side. Her blue eyes were serious, even as she paused next to Maggie's chair for a quick hug.
"You don't have to wait with me." Amber skipped her way out the front door, calling over her shoulder, "I'll be fine by myself."
Maggie rose and followed her. "I like to wait with you."
Amber swung around in a circle, so carefree and full of life. Maggie could barely breathe with the weight on her chest. It had been only a few months since her mother succumbed to cancer. Amber had been their blessing during the hard times.
She'd given Maggie and her mother the chance to focus on life instead of death.
"You all right, Mommy?" Amber had stopped her twirling and walked over to take Maggie's hand. Through the bad times, they had each other.
"Yeah, baby. I'm good."
The squeal of the bus's brakes announced its arrival. "Time to go." Maggie squeezed Amber's hand and dropped it.
"Love you." Amber flung her arms around Maggie's waist. Before Maggie could return the hug, Amber took off for the school bus.
"Love you," Maggie shouted as the doors folded shut. She wrapped her arms around her waist against the chill of the early autumn breeze that swept the first fallen leaves across the sidewalk. The leaves continued past her neighbor's house. The air felt light and free, but Maggie's insides kept tying themselves into knots.
As the bus pulled away, Maggie noticed a truck across the street in front of the Andersons' house. Not unusual given the teenage kids. It seemed as if a different vehicle was parked there every day. Shrugging off a nagging feeling, she turned to go inside.
Her mom's house needed work. The old Victorian had seen better days, and the wraparound porch needed a fresh coat of paint. But painting would have to wait. Other bills needed to be paid this month.
She froze. She'd recognize that voice anywhere.
Spinning around, she saw Sam Ward jogging over from the old white truck. His familiar black hair, blue eyes and strong build marked him as one the Ward brothers. Brady had always seemed more approachable than his stern older brother, though.
Sam stopped in front of her with a grim look on his face. "I'm glad I caught you."
"I was just leaving," she said coldly.
"I saw you at the store with Amber the other day. She's growing up fast." His smile had an edge of worry to it.
Even though everyone in town speculated which Ward brother had done the deed, Maggie had never told anyone except her mom and her best friend.
Luke was always the first guess. They were the same age. It lined up perfectly with their graduation. A few thought it was Sam. Sam didn't talk to her or Amber unless to say a brusque hi if they passed in a store. Not one person in town laid the blame on Brady. He was their golden child, football hero, the most likely to succeed; and he had. He'd gone off to England without a backward glance. She hadn't expected any long goodbyes. And when she'd sent Brady a letter with the fact she was pregnant, Sam had started dropping off money to help. Sam had never said anything, just handed her the envelope or left it with her mother. Brady hadn't even written a note.
As embarrassed as Maggie had been, she'd been grateful for the financial help. But the fact that the Wards, who had lost so much family, didn't want Amber to be a part of their lives left a sour taste in Maggie's mouth.
As far as she knew, Sam hadn't spent any time with Amber. He never stuck around long enough for conversation. Maybe Brady shared the pictures that she sent once a year by mail to the Ward farm like everything else she had to share with Brady. Never any response, but the money always came. Never a note or any request to see his child. Just money, as though that was all Amber needed from her father.
"We go to the same store every week, Sam." She emphasized his name as if he had a few screws loose. "What's this all about? I have to get ready for work."
"I heard about your mom." Sam rubbed the back of his neck. His nervousness was starting to make her worry. What if something had happened to Brady? "I'm real sorry to hear she passed."
"It was the end of a long battle," Maggie said automatically. Even though it had been a different cancer that had taken Mrs. Ward, Maggie knew that in this respect Sam and she had something in common. Her gut clenched momentarily.
They stood there awkwardly for a moment. He looked around as if he wanted to be anywhere but here. The feeling was mutual. "I really need to.. " She gestured to the screen door.
He hesitantly stepped on the first step. Apparently, he wasn't going to leave until he'd had his say. "Would you mind if I came in? I need to talk to you."
She stared him down, trying to determine whether she was willing to listen to anything a Ward had to say. But he seemed open and sincere.
She shrugged and opened the screen door. "Is everyone okay?"
"Yeah. Fine as far as I know." Sam followed her into the small living room. Out of habit, she gestured to one of the worn recliners. Her furniture may be worn but it was clean and paid for.
"Would you like something to drink?" Manners won out over the burn of anger. Why now? After eight years of silence, why was Sam here? Was he coming to tell her that Brady was through sending money? She'd have to put in more hours as secretary at the furniture store if that were the case.
"No, thanks." He sat on the edge of the chair, leaned his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands. Then he sat upright and half stood. He gestured to the chair opposite. "This would be easier if you sat."
Her stomach knotted. She moved toward the chair but didn't sit. What would be easier?
"I've done some stupid things in the past, Maggie." Sam seemed to think she was in the mood for confessions.
"I'm sure you have, but I have work to do"
"Sit down, Maggie Brown." His stern expression had her lowering to the edge of the seat. Obviously remembering where he was, he added, "Please."
"You have a lot of nerve"
"Yes, I do." Sam ran a shaking hand through his shaggy hair. "You have no idea how much nerve I have." She crossed her arms over her chest and waited. "I've done some really stupid things"
"You said that part already."
He looked up to the ceiling before returning his gaze to her. His eyes softened. "I know Amber is Brady's." She flushed and started to rise.
"But Brady doesn't."
She fell into the chair as if he'd punched her in the stomach. The air sucked out of the room and she gasped to draw it back in. Blood thundered in her ears. Her thoughts scattered into a million shards. "What are you talking about? I I told him. He sends money."
His eyes remained sad but determined as Sam reached into his pocket and pulled out some opened envelopes. "I'm sorry, Maggie. I thought I was doing right by my brother. Protecting him. I didn't mean to hurt you or Amber."
She took the envelopes. Each one was a letter she wrote to Brady, including the first one. One for every birthday.
"Brady doesn't know about Amber?" Maggie felt as if the room had turned upside down. With her mother needing constant care after chemotherapy, Maggie had been so startled and scared when she found out she was pregnant that she hadn't known what to do. Brady had vanished overseas somewhere. Taking the cowardly approach, she'd written a letter and sent it to the farm. When Sam dropped off the money, she'd been crushed that Brady didn't want anything to do with Amber, but maybe a little relieved, too.
"I messed up." Sam leaned forward again, his hands clasped before him and his head hung. "I want to make this right."
"Right?" She felt like a mockingbird, but her chest felt hollow and her mind couldn't put her world right side up. All these years, she'd been angry with Brady and he hadn't even known.
All those missed birthdays. The long nights awake with Amber when she'd been sick. Brady had missed everything from Amber's birth to kissing her scrapes and bruises better to holding her when she cried at her grandma's funeral.
A rush of heat went to her cheeks. She could have tried harder to reach out. Even searched for Brady on the internet. But she'd been too afraid of further rejection to reach out through any means but the letters.
"I got you a plane ticket for this weekend and talked with Penny about watching Amber. I didn't open your last letter. You should give it to him in person." He held out the sealed envelope.
She looked at him as if he was the Mad Hatter. "What are you talking about? You walk into my house to tell me you've lied to me and Brady for eight years. Do you know how hard it is to raise a child alone? How hard it is to care for your mother and your daughter when both are sick?"
Maggie jumped up and paced away. This was Sam's fault, not hers. Her mind raced to keep up with her emotions. "You had no right."
"You're right." Sam didn't move from his spot. His face was grim.
"Why?" Her shoulders shook with the anger bubbling within, but tears pressed against her eyes. A million what-ifs weighed heavy on her soul. Would she have had to do it on her own? Would Brady have held her when her world fell apart? Would he have been the strong one when she felt small and overwhelmed? Would he have grown to resent her for keeping him from his dreams? Or would he have rejected her like his brother had made her think? "Why would you do something like that? How could you treat your brother that way? What did I ever do to you?"
Sam rose and set the letter and another envelope on the table. He took a heavy breath and blew it out. "I didn't think about you. I had my reasons. It's time to fix this. Go to New York and let Brady know."
"Luke told me Brady transferred to the New York office of Matin Enterprises a month ago. I figured if Brady was this close again, it was time he knew."
"Why don't you tell him?" She shoved the envelopes toward him.
His lips drew into a thin line. For a moment, it seemed as if he wouldn't say anything. But something inside him broke. She recognized defeat because she'd felt it far too frequently herself. She refused to feel any sympathy for Sam, though.
"Because Brady won't talk to me." His words came out stilted and harsh. "He hasn't spoken to me in eight years. The only reason I know anything about his life is through Luke, and he barely speaks to me, either. This is the only way to clean up this mess."
She stared at the plane tickets that had fallen out of the envelope. "I can't go to New York and leave Amber at the drop of a hat. I have a job. I need to work." Her gaze fell on the stack of bills. "I have obligations."
"I'll take care of it." Sam stopped by the front door.
"What? Like you took care of this?" She held the old letters crumpled in her tight grip. Her stomach clenched. Heat flushed through her. This couldn't be happening. Brady had to know. How could he not?
"Damn you, Sam Ward." She made sure all the anger and frustration she felt were directed solely at him.
"I can't change the past, Maggie."
She refused to see the pain in his eyes.
"All I can do is try to fix the future. Brady needs to know about Amber."