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Ryan's past had come back to haunt him. But it had always been there, chipping away at his soul.
He glanced at the clock. Victoria was on her way to see him. Yes, that Victoria. The girl with whom he'd fathered a child. They'd dated steadily during their sophomore and junior years in high school, and they'd been crazy about each other. But after she got pregnant, everything fell apart.
Two sixteen-years-olds scared beyond belief.
Although Victoria couldn't bear to terminate the pregnancy, keeping the baby wasn't an option, either. Her parents convinced her that adoption was the answer. Ryan's dad was equally adamant. Under no circumstances should Ryan become a teenage father.
An open adoption was discussed, but both families thought that a closed adoption was more suitable and would make the situation easier for everyone.
Soon an ultrasound revealed that the baby was a girl. Victoria cried all of the time, and Ryan walked around in a daze. Although their relationship started to unravel, they agreed to hold their daughter, just once, to say goodbye to her together.
Only when the time came, Ryan panicked and never showed up at the hospital. A decision that tore him and Victoria apart for good. After that, she refused to speak to him. And rightly so. He'd spurned her when she'd needed him most.
He couldn't fathom how many times over the years he'd thought about Victoria and the baby, or how badly he'd regretted his decision. It had even interfered with his marriage. But Ryan didn't want to go there. He didn't want to think about that.
So what did he want to think about?
The day Victoria had moved away? After the baby was born, her parents had relocated to Los Angeles to give Victoria a fresh start. And now she was back in Oregon for the sole purpose of knocking at his front door.
Cripes, he was nervous.
Last week she'd called and told him about Kaley, making him an expectant father all over again.
Apparently, six months ago, Victoria had contacted numerous adoption-reunion registries, hoping to find their daughter. Swiftly and miraculously, she had. Kaley, their eighteen-year-old daughter, had contacted some of the same registries, trying to locate her birth parents.
According to Victoria, she and Kaley had gotten quite close. They'd formed a strong and steady bond. And now Kaley wanted to meet him, too.
He was humbled and downright awed by his daughter's interest in him. But it wasn't happening today. Victoria wanted to see him first, to evaluate his sincerity, no doubt. He couldn't blame her for being cautious, not after what he'd done.
A snorting sound caught his attention, and he shifted his gaze to the bulldog curled up in the corner. If he didn't know better, he would've thought the dog was mocking him. Beside the bulldog was a border collie, fast asleep. Ryan had a scatter of farm animals, too, that had more or less come with the house.
He lived in an old farmhouse, surrounded by woods. On the same property was a carriage house that served as his veterinary clinic.
He checked the clock again. Victoria was late.
What if she changed her mind? What if she left him hanging? No, he thought. She wouldn't do that. She would follow through for their daughter's sake.
Still, she'd been reluctant to discuss Kaley at length over the phone. He hadn't even seen a picture. He'd asked Victoria to email a photo, but she said that she would bring some with her.
He had all sorts of questions about Kaley. He wondered about Victoria, too. For all he knew she was married with other kids. Her husband might even be coming with her. He hadn't queried her about her relationship status, and she hadn't offered the information. He could have searched for her on Google to see what came up, but that would have made him feel like a stalker, so he'd let it be.
As for himself, he'd told her that he was divorced and lived alone, letting her know there wasn't anyone, aside from him, for Kaley to meet. Even Ryan's dad was gone. He'd died a few years back. During the course of their limited conversation, she'd said she was sorry for his loss, and he'd asked about her parents, to which she'd replied, "They're fine." No other details were discussed.
As he waited, his nervousness ratcheted up a notch. He didn't know what to do with himself. He was afraid that he would screw up again somehow, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing. He wanted so badly to make it up to Victoria. He hoped that she didn't show up with a husband or significant other. Having another man there would infringe on the moment.
Infringe on what moment? What was he expecting out of this, for Victoria to hug him and say it was okay? That she understood that he was just a kid back then? That was a lame excuse, and he damned well knew it. She'd been young and scared, too.
Maybe he should have searched for her on Google. He would feel a whole lot better right now if he'd seen a recent picture of her on a social networking site or wherever. At least then she might not seem like as much of a stranger. He tried to envision how she was going to look today, but he drew a blank. All he could see was the sweet girl from his mixed-up youth. The girl whose peppermint kisses used to set his libido on fire, the girl
The doorbell chimed, and he nearly leaped out of his skin. The dogs jumped up and barked, intensifying the frenzied feeling. He expelled the air in his lungs and hushed them.
He answered the door and came face-to-face with Victoria. She was by herself, and she looked the same yet different. Her eyes were just as green, her complexion was just as fair, and her hair was the same fiery copper shade of red, only she wore it sleek and straight instead of in a riot of curls. The waiflike girl had become a sophisticated woman. Attired in a slim-fitting dress and high-heeled sandals, she boasted L.A. chic.
His pulse pounded something fierce. He couldn't stop staring, which was a totally improper thing to do. But she was staring at him, too. He'd matured as dramatically as she had. He was no longer a lanky boy. He stood before her as a rough-edged man with frown lines at the corners of his eyes.
Breaking the silence, he said, "Come on in."
"Thank you." Her voice was as polished as her appearance.
As she crossed the threshold, the dogs waggled at her feet. They were trained not to jump on guests, but he could tell that they wanted to paw her.
Victoria smiled, but not at Ryan. She was acknowledging the canines. Nonetheless, her smile struck familiarity, leaving him with a pang in the pit of his stomach.
When she lifted her head, their gazes met and held once again. She glanced away first, and Ryan battled a string of emotion. Unable to curb his curiosity, he stole a peek at her left hand, which bore no trace of a ring. But that didn't mean she wasn't in a committed relationship. He would do well to remember that.
"Have a seat." He gestured to the living room, which was furnished with rustic pieces and minimal clutter.
Victoria sat in a leather chair. Had she avoided the sofa so he couldn't sit next to her? He suspected that beneath the L.A. chic she was as nervous as he was. This couldn't be any easier for her than it was for him, being in the same room with the guy who'd left her alone at the hospital.
Before he forgot his manners, he asked, "Would you like something to drink? I've got water, of course, and orange juice in the fridge. Or I can make a pot of coffee."
"No, thanks, I'm fine."
He moved forward and sat on the edge of the sofa, uncomfortable in his own home. He was still attracted to her, and he had no right to be. "Did you bring the pictures of Kaley?"
Victoria nodded and opened her purse. She extended an envelope toward him.
He took it from her, and soon he was studying a young woman with familiar features. Kaley had inherited Victoria's refined nose and full mouth, but her dark hair, deep-set eyes and tanned complexion favored his.
Overwhelmed by her image, his heart did a daddy-in-waiting flip. "She's beautiful."
Pride colored Victoria's voice. "And smart, too. She's starting college in the fall, and she's going to major in business, with a minor in women's studies."
He glanced at the pictures again. He didn't know what women's studies entailed, other than a connection to feminism, but he was eager to know more about Kaley's interest in it and what sort of career she envisioned. "Where at?"
"UCLA. She was raised in L.A. All of these years she was close by, and I didn't even know it."
Ryan's whereabouts put him hundreds of miles away from the reunion loop. "When am I going to get to meet her?"
Victoria shifted in her chair. "Are you sure you're ready? That you won't back out at the last minute?" He deserved that. If he were in her shoes, he would have said the same thing. But it still stung. "I've grown up since we last saw each other."
"I'm aware of how old you are."
"I wasn't talking about my chronological age, Tore."
"Yes, but time doesn't necessarily change people." Her voice cracked a little. "And please don't call me Tore."
The vulnerability in her tone shamed him. He hadn't meant to use his old nickname for her. He hadn't meant for it to slip so easily from his tongue.
"I'm sorry," he said, knowing those words did little or nothing to absolve him. "I don't want to make this any harder than it already is. But I have changed, and I want to get to know my daughter." He would come through this time.
A beat of painful silence passed before she responded, "I'm glad that you want to get to know her, but there's a lot to consider. Kaley is searching for missing links in her identity. This is as much about her as it is about you."
He braved the question he hated to address. "Does she know about me not showing up at the hospital?"
"No. She's inquisitive about the past, but that isn't something I was able to summon the strength to tell her."
Because old wounds ran deep, he thought, wishing he could comfort Victoria somehow.
She quietly added, "She asked me about the day she was born. If I saw her before the adoption agency took her away. I told her that I did and that I held her, too."
"She didn't ask about me?"
Victoria shook her head. "I think she automatically assumed you were part of it since you were my boyfriend at the time and not just some random guy who made me pregnant."
That made him feel worse. "Do you think I should tell her the truth?"
Her tone remained quiet. "That's up to you."
"I think I should." He just hoped that he could explain his actions in way that made sense. Even after all of these years, he couldn't quite define his panic, aside from him being a teenage boy who'd been afraid to face the final countdown.
Would that reason be enough for Kaley?
Anxious to know more about her and how she was raised, he asked, "What are her adoptive parents like?"
"Her mother passed away about seven years ago. From what I understand, she was an amazing woman. Kaley's identity quest has a lot to do with her."
His heart went out to his daughter. His mother died when he was a kid, too. "And the dad?"
"Eric is a wonderful father. They're extremely close. He supports her in every way. I've become close to him, too."
He felt a stab of envy, but he said, "That's good."
Victoria continued by saying, "He's half-Native, like you are. Kaley doesn't look adopted. She looks as if she could be his. She even speaks a little Cherokee. That's the tribe he's from."
He was still holding pictures of the child he'd helped create. The child another man had nurtured. Apparently Eric was ingrained in his roots. Ryan didn't know much his about Native side. In his case, it was Paiute. But he'd been raised by his Anglo father. "I expected Kaley to have at least one Native parent." There was a federal act that stipulated that Native babies were supposed to be adopted within their culture. "It's nice that she speaks some Cherokee."
"She speaks Spanish, too. She took it all through high school. She's good with languages."
"I'd really like to meet her, and I swear I'll do my best not to disappoint her."
Victoria studied him from across the coffee table, and he absorbed her scrutiny, all the way to his anxious soul.
After an audible breath, she conceded. "She'll be out of school soon on summer break next week. We can figure something out then."
"That would be great. I'd love for her to visit. Maybe she could stay for a week or so. You could come with her, if that would make her more comfortable. In fact, you could both stay here."
Her eyes went wide. "Here? In your house?"
"Why not? I've got plenty of room. Besides, the nearest motel is clear out on the highway, as you well know. My house is more convenient." He chanced an intimate remark, needing to know, needing to mention it. "If you have a significant other, you can invite him, too."
She lifted her chin in what struck him as false bravado. He waited to see what her answer would be, a look of shattered innocence pulsing between them.
Then she said, "I'm not involved with anyone. I prefer being single."
He told himself that her status didn't matter. Nor did her uneasy claim. In spite of his attraction to her, he wasn't trying to rekindle anything except the parenthood they'd lost. But he was still glad that she was single. "What about your job?"
"What about it?" she parroted.
"Would you be able to get the time off?"
"I'm a web designer." She clasped her hands on her lap, a bit too properly. "I have my own company."
He pressed the issue. He couldn't help it. Now that he'd opened the let's-be-parents-together door, he wasn't about to close it. "Then you should bring Kaley and the two of you should stay here. If she's willing, of course. If not, I'll go to California to meet her."
"Personally I don't think staying here is a good idea, but I'll talk to her about it. She's an adult, and she can make her own decisions."
"Okay. Thanks." What else could he say? What else could he do but wait for the outcome? He'd already given it his best.
"I should go. I'm flying back tonight." She stood up and collected her purse.
He didn't want her to leave. He wanted to make everything right, to fix what he'd broken, to see forgiveness in her eyes. But he couldn't stop her from leaving any more than she could have stopped him from running away all those years ago.
He walked her onto the porch and down the stairs, where they stood in the sun. The air was perfumed with flowering foliage, and it reminded him of the wild ginger they used to pick. Everything had seemed wild then, including the inexperienced love they'd made.
He turned to look at her and caught her watching him. She'd gone vulnerable again. She was twisting the ends of her hair, an anxious habit he recognized from their youth.
She said, "I'll get back to you after I talk to Kaley."
"I'll be waiting for your call." He tucked his hands into his jean pockets. Was that his anxious teenage habit? "Have a safe trip home."
"Thank you." She quit twisting her hair, but she was still discomposed.
Clearly, the memories between them had become palpable. He didn't doubt that Victoria felt it, too.
They said goodbye, and he watched her walk to her rental car. She didn't glance back at him, and he didn't remove his hands from his pockets or return to his big, empty house until she was gone.