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"Garrett, thank you for coming." November rain fell in wind-driven sheets just beyond Barnesworth Mansion's two-story colonnade. Eve Barnesworth leaned against the imposing mahogany door, fingering her triple strand of pearls. "Calling this moment merely awkward would be the world's biggest understatement."
He cleared his throat, brushing past her with a nod. "That about sums it up."
"Can I take your coat?" Ever the perfect hostess, Eve held out her arms, glad to replace the inevitable hell to come with routine.
He shrugged off his rain-splattered pea jacket, handing it to her with a half smile. In the eight years since circumstance ripped them apart and she'd left their small Florida town, Garrett had changed from boy to man. He seemed taller. He'd become a navy SEAL, and the breadth of his chest and shoulders told the story of how physically powerful he'd become. His hair used to be on the long side when she could've spent hours fingering his curls. Now he wore it in a painfully neat regulation crew cut that struck her as distant and cold as his impenetrable gray eyes. In high school, she'd known every nuance and expression of his dear face. With time and tragedy between themand more anger than she'd sometimes thought her heart could bearshe doubted she'd have even recognized him as her first love had they met in a crowd.
He cleared his throat, his gaze landing on the entry hall's chandelier. "You, ah, look well."
"Thank you." But have you bothered to take one long look at me since you stepped in the door? On such an upsetting occasion, it was understandable she'd be a well of emotions. Being on the verge of losing her fatherher everythingwas hard enough without tossing this reunion into the mix. Not sure what to do with her hands, she clasped them neatly against the small of her back. "Like I said on the phone, Daddy hasn't even told me what it is he has to say."
"Right." A nerve ticked on his hard, square jaw as Garrett nodded. "Well, I don't mean to rush something like this, but your dad and I have never exactly been close and with me only in town on holiday leave, we've got a houseful of folks at Mom's holding our Turkey Day dinner until I get home."
"Of course." Reading between the lines, Eve got the gist of Garrett's words. He didn't give a damn about her beloved father's deathbed request to see him any more than he'd cared to talk to her all those years ago. "I'll take you to Daddy's room."
Trailing Eve up an endless flight of marble stairs, carefully avoiding the sight of her rounded derriere, Garrett Solomon might as well have been in the Buxton County courthouse for all the warmth this place contained. Because Eve's father, Hal, had been Coral Ridge's mayorlike her grandfatherfor the past forty years, it'd been dubbed the Mayoral Mansion.
Garrett preferred the Snob Hill nickname one of his football pals had thought up. Regardless of the name, the sentiment was the sameenter the old place at your own risk. Garrett might be a SEAL now, but back when he'd been sixteen, sneaking up the servants' staircase to Eve's room, he'd had no idea how many years of torment the occupants of this house would cause him.
"Just a little farther," Eve said, casting a half smile over her shoulder.
Right. The hall was wide enough to drive a VW Bug.
"Good. You're both here." Grim-faced Dr. Mulligan slapped his newspaper against the empty half of a brown leather settee. Garrett hadn't seen the man since he'd broken his arm at thirteen. "Hal's been calling for you, but gave me the boot."
"Sounds like Daddy " Teary-eyed, Eve hugged the salt-and-pepper-haired doctor. "II can't thank you enough for being here. It's been a horrible few days."
"Agreed." The doctor stood, pulling open double doors that led into a dark room lit only by a bedside lamp. Antiseptic overrode the more putrid smells of sickness and pending death. Countless missions had taught Garrett that death indeed had a smell and it wasn't pretty.
A uniformed nurse sat near the patient, reading from the Bible. The old man had taken on religion a little late in life. "Mr. Barnesworth" the woman moved to the foot of the bed, making room for Eve to stand near her father "Eve is here."
"Garrett?" The old man's voice scratched as if he'd dined on sandpaper.
"I'm here." Though Garrett preferred the shadows, he stepped into the lamp's glow.
"Come closer," Hal said after a few shallow coughs.
"Daddy" Eve perched on the side of his bed, taking his hand "we can come back later if you're not feeling up for a talk."
"Nonsense." Waving toward the nurse and doctor, he managed through another round of coughs to dismiss them both. "Can't die in peace with this on my heart."
Garrett had been in a lot of strange places, but this one beat them all. The imposing, dark-paneled room housing a canopied bed suitable for royalty was about as welcoming as stepping into a museum exhibit. Not even the fire crackling in the hearth provided warmth.
"Go ahead, Daddy. Garrett and I are listening."
His daughter nodded.
"Your baby" Hal surrendered to another fit of coughs.
The old man's words tightened Garrett's chest.
If prideful Hal Barnesworth hadn't forced teenage Eve into some random, far-off home for unwed mothers, if Garrett had been allowed to care for her as he'd wanted, their baby might've lived.
"It's okay, Daddy. I forgive you for making me go."
With a violent shake of his head, the old man croaked, "No. N-not about that."
Garrett wasn't forgiving squat.
He might've been only seventeen when Hal told him his newborn son died, but that hadn't lessened the pain. Even years later, during mission com-blackouts, his mind couldn't resist playing a few rounds of what-ifs, plotting how different his life might be if not only his son had lived, but if Eve had cared enough about them both to stay in Coral Ridge.
"Y-your son," Hal whispered. "I'm sorry, but" More coughs erupted.
Silent tears glistened on Eve's cheeks. Garrett knew the right thing would be going to her, offering her comfort during this obviously difficult time, but his feet felt frozen to the floor. Eve and her father once made his life a living hell. Could he now be blamed for not caring if the great Hal Barnesworth lived or died?
"Daddy, please." Eve gripped her father's gnarled hands. "Save your energy. Maybe if you rest, you'll feel better?"
After a particularly violent round of coughs, the already gaunt man seemed to shrink within himself. "Y-your son isn't d-d-dead."
"Shh " Patting his hands, Eve said, "You're delusional. My baby died a long time ago. Like you said, it was for the best, right? His poor little heart couldn't support him. It was good he didn't suffer."
Really, Eve? You're drinking that Kool-Aid? How had losing their son been a good thing?
"I l-lied." More coughs.
"About what?" Interest finally piqued, Garrett moved closer to the bed.
"Your son's alive. II took him. I" More coughs made his next few words inaudible, then he rasped, "My precious E-Eve I'm sorry I l-love f-for best." He took a few deep, gasping breaths, then passed out.
"Daddy? Please, wake up. Tell me what you mean." Eve wrapped her arms around her father, hugging him to her. "Dr. Mulligan!"
The bedroom's doors burst open as the doctor hustled to the bed. "What happened?"
"One minute he was t-talking" Eve wiped tears from her cheeks "and then he"
The doctor brushed her aside to check her father's vitals. "His blood pressure's dropped substantially in the past hour. Exhaustion's taking a toll."
"Do something!" Eve shrieked. "Call an ambulance."
"I'm sorry." The physician took a stethoscope from his suit coat pocket, gently nudging Eve aside. "Your dad signed a living will. With cancer and now pneumonia, he knew his time was coming and wished no extraordinary measures be taken to prolong the inevitable."
With Eve sobbing, hands over her face, and the doctor and nurse hovering over Hal, Garrett wasn't sure what to do. No doubt the old guy's words were just crazy ramblings. Also, knowing Hal, he'd no doubt wake in the morninga good thing as he had major explaining to do.
Garrett knew he should be comforting Eve, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He couldn't believe Hal Barnesworth might actually be dying, let alone that his confession may be true. Garrett's mind raced. His head knew this talk about their baby had to be just one more of Hal's manipulations, but why? What did he have to gain? If there was so much as a grain of truth to what the old man said, where was their son now?
Chills ran through him. So much emotion he feared he might be sick. Forcing himself to hold it together, Garrett drew on his training to force deep, calming breaths.
To the nurse, the doctor said in a hushed tone, "Please put ointment on Mr. Barnesworth's lips."
Eve cried harder. "Ointment? Th-that's all you're going to do?"
The doctor ushered Eve into the hall.
Garrett followed, shutting the door behind him.
With his arm around Eve's slumped shoulders, the doctor said, "You have to understand, little things that help him be more comfortable are all your father wants us to do. Even if he didn't, drastic measures would only prolong the inevitable."
Begrudgingly, knowing it was the right thing, Gar-rett went to her, attempting a hug, only she pushed him away. "You hate him. Don't even try pretending you don't."
"Eve " Not knowing what to do with his hands, Garrett crammed them into his pockets. "What I do or don't feel for your father has nothing to do with what we just heard. Think about it. I don't have a clue why, but your father has to be lying. You need to pull yourself together so when he wakes, we can drill him as to why he really wanted me here."
"I agree. What he said c-can't be true," she managed to cry between more sobs. "Daddy wouldn't do that to me. He wouldn't be that cruel."
"That's where you're wrong. You heard himfor the best? As in just like he controlled whether or not you were allowed to have a relationship with me. Seems your old man's playing games all over again."
"Stop!" Eve turned her back on him, but Garrett wasn't having it. She wasn't running from this, the way she had after their son's death.
"I, ah, need to make a call." Dr. Mulligan waved his phone before leaving the two of them alone.
"Look" Garrett placed his hands on her shoulders and gently turned her to face him "I'm sorry your dad's sick. I know you two are close. But if there's even the slightest chance what he said is true, we have to find out more. Hopefully, Hal's going to wake up. And when he does, we have to question him for definitive answers. We"
"What's wrong with you? He's dying. But if there's any hope of him hanging on, I can't risk upsetting him again."
The doctor had returned and now paused alongside Garrett. "Maybe it's best you leave. I'm going to give Eve a sedative, and my nurse will stay with Hal through the night."
Tossing up his hands, Garrett laughed. "There we go with that word againbest. Oh, I'll leave for the night but, Eve, you've got exactly twelve hours until I'm back."
Garrett's family may have been waiting for him, but considering he'd just come out on the wrong end of playing emotional catch with a grenade, he wasn't ready to see them.
He'd have liked a hard run to work off the tension knotting his shoulders, but considering the Thanksgiving Day weather, he opted for the less healthy alternative of Schmitty's.
The bar and burger joint was good and dark. High wooden booths allowed for privacy. Loud '70s rock made it damn near impossible to think. When the waitress stopped by his table, he ordered a pitcher of beer.
But once she brought it, he was too shell-shocked to drink.
Hal's revelation had Garrett pissed. Actually he was beyond pissed. He had passed into some bizarre state he hadn't been in since he was seventeen and the old man told him his son had died. Logically, hearing the opposite should've sent his spirit soaring, but it wasn't that easy. On the off chance what the old man said had been true, even all-powerful Hal Barnesworth couldn't turn back time to rest that baby in Garrett's loving arms. And he would've loved his kid. Eve, too. They could've had it all, but their futures had been manipulated as though they'd been puppets on strings.
Their every choice had been stolen.
Worse yet, Eve seemed more concerned about her father's passing than the news that their son may actually be alive.
Chalk him up as a horrible person, but Garrett sure as hell wouldn't be sorry to see Hal Barnesworth go.
While all around him seeds of a good time were watered by beer and burgers into louder conversation and laughs, Garrett's mood grew proportionally darker. What if this was just the grand finale to Hal's puppet show? Garrett wouldn't put it past him to lie for the twisted amusement of seeing Eve and Garrett dance. But if Hal had spoken the truth? That meant somewhere out there Garrett and Eve had a son. Garrett's Thanksgiving leave was only a week, which didn't offer much time to find a child gone eight years. Even if Garrett eventually found him, what happened then? Was the kid happy and healthy? Assuming he was, then what? There wasn't exactly an Idiot's Guide written on how to tell an eight-year-old you were his dad.
Covering his face with his hands, Garrett struggled to find answers where there were none. He'd hoped to seek solace in the pitcher on the table, but had yet to take a drink. In order to process Hal's revelation he needed clarity, not a good buzz.