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Two words jerked Trent Michaels out of his comfort zone, tunneling him back a dozen years, pre-West Point, pre-deployment, a young man searching for answers. For hope. "Alyssa. Hello."
Heart pumping from a swift adrenaline punch, Trent stared straight ahead as his high school love leaned down to accept his new boss's hug, looking
Amazing. Beautiful. Wonderful.
His heart ground to a stop, unwilling to believe what his eyes held true. Dark brown hair, clipped back, framed a face no less beautiful at thirty. Probably more so, the mature features offering a true version of what girlish looks had only hinted. Dark brows arched over hazel eyes, tiny spikes of gold lighting the color from within, her profile as dear and familiar now as it had been twelve years past.
But what was she doing in Jamison, New York?
He'd checked before accepting Helen Walker's offer of military liaison with Walker Electronics. A good soldier always appraised his front line, and Trent had a slew of battlefield commendations testifying to his thoroughness. As of last week, Alyssa had been living in a squirrel's hole-sized town in eastern Montana.
"How's your father, dear? The surgery went well, I hear?"
Lyssa nodded, her expression warm, a small smile curving soft, sweet lips he remembered like it was yesterday. "Yes, thank you, although he's already chomping at the bit. My mother has her hands full."
Helen clucked womanly empathy. "I'll bet she does, but at least you were able to come back." She squeezed Lyssa's hand in a silent message, her look sympathetic. "That's a big help right there."
"I hope so." Lyssa straightened, her gaze traveling the table full of men with a polite smile of welcome, right until she came to him.
So did he.
One hand came to her throat in a convulsive movement. She didn't look happy to see him. Shocked, yes. Surprised, absolutely.
And scared. No, wait. Make that petrified.
Trent had become an expert in tactical assessment during his long stint in the military, but his current appraisal made little sense.
A second ticked by. Then two. And suddenly a voice interrupted the moment, a familiar voice, yet not one he'd heard in a long time. Twenty years, give or take, because it was his voice, his voice as a child, the speaker obscured by a curved oak support draped in grape vine and clear twinkle lights.
"Excuse me, Mom?"
Lyssa turned, her face ashen. Her gaze darted from Trent to the silhouetted boy, her expression mouse-on-the-glue-board trapped. Her lips moved, but nothing came out.
The boy moved closer.
Trent saw his face, his hair, his shoulders as they'd been twenty years before, the boy's stance, his smile, his look of question totally Trent Michaels.
He froze, tight and taut, his head unwilling to digest what his gaze held true.
"Jim says I'm all set in the kitchen. Can I go back to Grandma's now? Practice my throws?"
She nodded, still silent, the beat of her heart evident beneath a ribbed knit top, her breathing tight and forced.
"Yes. I'll see you later."
The boy escaped through the nearest exit. Once outside, he ran for the hillside, barreling downward, his movements lithe with natural athleticism.
Trent had no idea when he'd stood, but he was standing now, his brain processing the scene.
Alyssa swiped hands against her pants, then headed for the office, the only private spot in the place, knowing he'd follow. Knowing he had no choice.
He followed her into the room, closed the door with a decided click, then braced himself against the door, shoulders back, chest out, hoping his posture intimidated her and not caring if it did because he was fairly certain that if his stance didn't worry her, the unveiled anger in his voice would. "Alyssa, what have you done?"
She couldn't breathe. Couldn't think. Couldn't possibly reason how this happened after all those years of being so careful and cautious, tucked away in an obscure corner of brushland Montana.
Alyssa tried to draw a breath, but the look on Trent's face, the pain vying with anger, the hurt.
What she'd seen as good and sacrificial twelve years before seemed completely selfish now.
Dear God, please. Please.
So now you pray, an inner voice scoffed. You might have wanted to think of that somewhere along the way, missy. A little late at this point, don't you think?
Shame cut deeper.
Trent's gaze knifed through her, his locked-arm position forbidding. When she stayed silent he strode forward, stopping just short of contact. "Why?"
She shrugged, fighting for words, her closed throat prohibiting speech.
He grabbed her upper arms, anger trumping the sorrow in his face. "I wasn't good enough, was that it? Did Daddy decide I wasn't worthy enough to know I had a son? So he sent you away to avoid the embarrassment of knowing I fathered his grandchild?"
"And you let him?" Trent railed on, ignoring her protest. "You let him send you away, carrying our child, our son, and never told me, Lyssa? Never gave me the chance to do the right thing? How could you? Did I mean that little to you?"
Pain coursed his features again. His grip tightened and she braced herself, experience telling her what came next, feeling the power and strength magnified by the anger and hurt in his face, his eyes.
Oh, his eyes.
Wet with unshed tears, a glimpse of the boy she'd known and loved shone through, the boy who never cried, never gave up, his stoicism on and off the football field renowned. To see what she'd done to him, what she'd brought him to
Dear God, please Please
He released his hold, stepping back, his face contorted.
The hard edge in his voice straightened her backbone. She drew a breath, squared her shoulders and met his gaze, determined to take her just due. Hadn't she learned that over the years? That life handed out punishments on a regular basis? With the feel of Trent's vise-like grip a fresh memory to join a host of older ones, she raised her chin. "I gave you choices you wouldn't have had otherwise, Trent. And that's all I have to say right now."* * *
All she had to say?
He stepped forward again.
She cringed, her expression a mix of fear and dread. Trent stopped cold.
He'd never scared a woman. Ever. The very thought sickened him, but the look on her face, no, scratch that, the look he put on her face, was mortal fear.
He needed time and space to sort this out, to deal with the anger coursing through him, an anger that seemed quite justified under the circumstances.
He turned, put his forehead to the door and breathed deep, realizing that the CEO of Walker Electronics and her team had witnessed the entire spectacle.
The Army had worked to prepare him for surprise attacks, but nothing in their tactical maneuvers readied him for this.
Hidden. Furtive. Kept secret.
Thoughts of his childhood coursed through him, of how hard he worked to become who he was because of who he'd been, the cast-out four-year-old thrown away by vagrant parents passing by on I-86, saved by a pair of hunters who rescued him on a cold, windy, sleet-filled afternoon, hypothermic, hungry and dazed.
A host of emotions wrestled for his heart, his soul. Breathing deep, he opened the door without a backward glance or another word. He headed for the exit looking neither left nor right.
Helen Walker might rethink her offer, and with good reason. Most CEOs deplored scandal and he couldn't blame her. He wasn't big on drama himself, and small-town drama to boot? Magnified by a power of ten, minimum.
But there was no way he could face that table of well-dressed executives right now, not with any semblance of self-control. Better he go, get hold of himself, deal with the new hand just given to him in the game of life.
He was a father. Had been one for some time, it seemed. A boy. His boy. He pinched the bridge of his nose as realization spiked deeper. Their boy.
Trent shook his head, gripped the nape of his neck to thwart the crushing headache, then climbed into his car, a different man than the one who had arrived short minutes before.
A s mundane tasks vied for Alyssa's attention, her thoughts kept slipping to Trent, stymieing her productivity. By ten o'clock she had no idea how she made it through the night.
What was he doing? Thinking? Was he hunting up a lawyer, wanting what had been denied him for so long? A chance to know his son, the child who grew to look more like him every day?
Fear dogged her steps. She avoided Helen Walker's table by staying holed up in the office until Helen's group left. What must they think of her? Of him? Of Jaden?
Regret spasmed her midsection. Her gut had clenched tight upon seeing Trent and hadn't relaxed yet.
Dear God. Dear God.
The lament sounded lame, even to her. She'd wandered away from faith a long time ago and had much to regret in the ensuing years. No way, no how was God breathlessly waiting for her wake-up call. And now that it had come.
"Lyssa." Cat Morrow touched her arm. The concern in the older waitress's voice mirrored her expression. "He didn't know?"
Lyssa leaned her head back, eyed the pressed tin ceiling tiles, bit her lip and shook her head, one tear snaking its way along her cheek. "No. You did?"
Cat sent her a look of disbelief. "Oh, honey, it only takes one look for anyone who knew Trent as a boy. He's the spitting image of his father. Why didn't you tell him?" Cat pulled her into a hug, her embrace unleashing the floodgates Alyssa held in check all night. "Anyone who was around you two knew what was going on. It was written all over your faces. There, there " Cat crooned, patting her back, much as Alyssa would have done to Cory, her three-year-old daughter. "It's all right."
Alyssa pulled back, grabbed a handful of tissues from the box alongside the register, blew her nose and shook her head. "It's not. I know that. And I know it never will be."
"That's not true" Cat protested, but Alyssa knew better.
"Trent's an upright guy. Always was. Always will be. He'll never understand what I did."
Cat tipped her head, puzzled. "I'm having a hard time myself," she admitted.
"He couldn't have accepted the appointment to West Point if he knew, not with their rules." Alyssa met Cat's gaze and drew a deep breath, half remorse, half resignation. "Cadets can't be married or responsible for a child. And if Trent knew, he'd have insisted on marrying me, taking responsibility for us." Visions of Trent's hopeful excitement, the goals of a little boy lost finally attainable, danced in her brain as she remembered his joy at receiving the invitation to attend the esteemed military academy. "I couldn't let him do that."
"It was his job to do that," Cat reminded her. "As the father, he had a duty to his child, his son. And for a guy like Trent, whose parents didn't want him, fatherhood's got to be a pretty big deal. He's not like other guys."
Alyssa had discovered that firsthand in Montana. Thoughts of Vaughn Maxwell's temper taught her that all men weren't created equal. And she was grateful to have kept Vaughn's inner nature from Jaden during the short years they were together. Why hadn't she seen through Vaughn's facade sooner? What was she thinking? If she'd been honest with herself, she could have left before the unthinkable happened. But she'd stayed, leaving no one but herself to blame for the consequences.
Shame coursed through her again. "I don't know how to make this right."
Cat's look said that wasn't possible.
Alyssa turned and stared out the window. "What will I tell Jaden?"
"How?" She faced Cat again and lifted her shoulders. "He'll never trust me again."
"Never's a long time," Cat advised. She shouldered her bag and arched a brow. "The truth shall set you free," she paraphrased. "John's gospel. Smart dude. He was pretty tight with Christ, remember?"
Alyssa couldn't meet her eye. It had been easy to fall away from faith, from God in Montana. Aunt Gee was a free spirit who lived for the moment, and she'd taken Alyssa in when she needed a home. Alyssa had followed suit, for a while at least.
Shame knifed again.
Sure, she'd straightened up after a couple of years. And Gee had actually matured as well, but nothing made up for the choices Alyssa made those first years away. Foolish. Sinful. Self-indulgent.
God? You there? Can we talk?
Cat reached out and gave her a brisk hug, a hug that said she'd somehow find a way. "I'm off tomorrow, but back on Wednesday. I'll see you then, all right?"
"And if you need me, need a shoulder, need a pal, need more tissues " Cat's gaze encompassed the dwindling supply on the counter alongside them " give me a shout. I'm not far away."
The older woman shrugged and nodded, knowing. "You're welcome, kid. And pray. Nothing's so bad that God doesn't want us. Hear us. Care for us."
Alyssa wasn't about to buy into that line of reasoning, not when she knew better. No one had pushed her to foolish relationships when she'd left. She'd managed that one on her own. And yes, she'd turned it around, had changed things before she met Vaughn, and then.
And then married a guy who hid his angry side until the chips were down and whiskey took the place of sweet tea on the side porch.
She should have seen it coming. There were signs. She'd ignored them. Foolish, foolish girl. And now?
Cat said she should pray. Cat didn't know, didn't understand that there were some things that were unforgivable. Even by God.
Trent went round the whole thing in his head, trudging the sidewalks deep into the night, and still came up with nothing.
He'd loved her. He thought she'd loved him. When she broke things off and headed out west for college, he'd been devastated but man enough to realize he'd broken trust with her by giving in to temptation. Even at eighteen, he was supposed to be the God-sworn guardian, the protector.
He'd failed miserably, then lost the girl besides. His fault, he knew, for not respecting her enough to wait. But obviously he wasn't the only one lacking honor. The thought of the boy rocked Trent back on his heels.
That Alyssa could do such a thing angered him enough to keep him walking the streets, until he was tired enough to fall into the motel room bed hours later, the pain in his head no match for the one in his heart.
A sharp knock woke Trent with a start the next morning.
At least he thought it was morning. He'd drawn the heavy curtains when he'd finally crashed, shrouding the room from light. Noise. People. Life.
Obviously life found him. Housekeeping, maybe?