Lauren didn't intend to sleep with her brother-in-law Cole on the day of her husband's funeral. But now that she is pregnant, she's not sorry. Cole's given her a baby, a long-wished-for miracle. He's been her friend forever, though she never told him or anyone else how unhappy her marriage to his cheating brother was. And she's afraid to tell the small town that considered her husband a hero that the baby isn't his.
Cole's been in love with Lauren since he was sixteen. It kills him that everyone believes the baby is his dead brother's. All he wants is to claim the baby, and Lauren, as his own. Though she marries him, will Lauren's heart ever be his?
Lauren must tell the truth or risk losing Cole. Is her newly-discovered love for him greater than her fear of scandal in her hometown?
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Lauren Walsh watched as her husband's coffin was lowered into the grave. The minister's voice sounded far away, as if she were trapped underwater. She struggled to keep from drowning.
"We commit the body of Billy Walsh to the earth: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Into the smiles of our memories, we lay you down. May you rest in peace and love."
She closed her eyes and squeezed her sister's hand. It'll be over soon. I can pretend for a few more minutes.
"Billy lived his life to the fullest. And though he was taken too soon and his passing grieves us immensely, let's rejoice that he lived the life he wanted. Let's remember his spirit and his zest for life, and be happy we knew him."
Anger made her throat burn. They knew nothing about Billy. How could they? For the last five years she'd been lying to them. Lauren gulped deep, calming breaths. It's almost over. Don't fall apart now.
Following the lead of Billy's brother Cole, she tossed the white rose she held into the grave. White roses for remembrance. Memories swirled around her like ghosts. So many things she wished she could forget.
Beside her, Cole stood with his head bent, one arm around his weeping mother. Cole's pain was as raw as his mother's, and Lauren's heart ached for him. Whatever differences they'd had, Cole and Billy had been brothers, and blood was thicker than water. She reached for his free hand and squeezed it in silent support. Without looking at her, Cole returned the gesture.
"Lord, let now thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word."
The minister's words signaled the end of the interment ceremony. Lauren sighed with relief. With one last squeeze, Cole released her hand. Lauren looped her arm through her sister Charlotte's and hung on tight. She didn't know what she would have done without her older sister and the rest of her family these last few hellish days.
Ella Walsh sobbed uncontrollably as Cole led her to the waiting funeral car. She leaned against him, her cries piercing the quiet of the Masonville, North Dakota graveyard. "My Billy, my Billy. He can't be gone. No, no, no!"
Lauren wished she could feel grief. She'd been married to Billy for five years, had known him many years before that. Wasn't a wife who'd just lost her husband supposed to feel grief? But all she had was the guilt of their last conversation weighing on her heart and the anger that made her want to beat her fists against a wall.
The luncheon in the church basement, following the interment, dragged on with excruciating slowness. Lines of people stepped forward to offer their condolences. They were so sorry, they said. It was hard to believe someone as vital and alive as Billy could be dead, they said. They'd followed his hockey career since he was a star on the Masonville peewee team. He'd been on the verge of making the big leagues, they were sure. Such a tragedy that a car crash on a Georgia interstate had ended his life.
Lauren murmured her thanks, choking back screams of frustration. Don't you know he was never going to make the National Hockey League? There'd been a chance at one time;he'd had the talent, but not the work ethic. Or the right attitude. He'd been traded from one crummy minor league team to another. From one crummy minor league town to another. She'd worked at whatever job she could find to help support them. And even though it was obvious his hockey dream wouldn't come to fruition, Billy had stubbornly refused to deal with reality.
Finally the luncheon was over, and she and her family could leave. The oppressive August afternoon heat hit her as she stepped from the cool church basement. Anxious to escape, she followed her family to the car. On the short drive to her parents' acreage a few miles outside of Masonville, the car's air conditioner didn't have a chance to cool the interior, and a bead of sweat ran down her back beneath her long-sleeved knit dress, a dress too warm for this weather but the only black one she owned.
She was grateful for the coolness and peace of the house she'd grown up in. After kicking off her heels at the front door, she curled into a ball on the sofa in the living room. She closed her eyes, needing some quiet and peace to think. And time to figure out where she went from here.
What am I to do with my life now?
But the peace didn't last. The doorbell rang, shattering the quiet. Lauren heard her mother greet a couple of neighbors. She stifled a groan. She was expected to receive these guests and accept their condolences. After all, they were only doing what was considered the right thing by small town standards. She pushed to her feet and forced herself to walk to the kitchen.
Widowed elderly sisters Martha and Beatrice were longtime friends and neighbors of her parents, Grace and Robert Saunders. They greeted Lauren with sad, pitying smiles and two casserole dishes. Martha handed her dish to Lauren's mother.
"We didn't think you'd feel much like cooking today, Grace, so we brought some food." The smell of tuna fish casserole filled the kitchen. Martha turned to Lauren and grasped her hands. "We're so sorry for your loss, dear."
"Thank you." The words tasted like dust in her mouth.
"Billy was such a character," Beatrice said with a wistful shake of her head. "I had him in my grade two classroom. You were in the same class, Lauren. He was quite the little hell raiser. Remember, Martha?"
"Oh, yes, I remember. I had him for grade five. Nearly ripped all my hair out that year. Remember the time he pulled the fire alarm? We evacuated the school and called out the volunteer fire department before we realized it was one of Billy's pranks. I was spitting mad, but he was so angelic-looking, with that sweet smile of his, that I couldn't stay angry with him. He was curious to see what would happen, he said."
That was Billy in a nutshell. He'd do whatever he wanted to do, purely for fun, and would charm away any objections or anger. Lauren was often made to believe she was the one in the wrong, she was the one who was being unreasonable.
Her mother made tea and put a cup in front of her, but her stomach rebelled at the thought of drinking it. The old ladies went on and on about Billy until Lauren was sickened by all the memories. Instead of comforting her, they only succeeded in fueling her anger. Why had he done this to them? Why had he taken her love and thrown it in her face? And now he was dead, and she didn't even have the satisfaction of telling him how much he'd hurt her.
Sam Miller, one of Billy's childhood friends, swept into the kitchen, his face full of disbelief and anguish. He knelt beside her chair and gripped one of her clammy hands in his.
"I can't believe he's dead. I can't believe I'm not going to see him again. I'm so sorry, Lauren."
"Thank you," she said woodenly. They were the only words she was capable of uttering today.
"He was the best guy, a good friend, and a good husband. Nobody can replace him."
Lauren snatched her hand away and tucked it into her lap. Her jaw hurt from clenching it. Sam had no idea what kind of husband Billy had been. Like everyone else, he'd only seen the façade she'd created of the happy, doting wife to the charming, athletic husband. It had been easy to deceive everyone in Masonville. She and Billy lived most of the year in the southern cities of the minor hockey league he'd played in, only coming home for holidays and special occasions. She'd maintained the façade till the end, until Billy's last deceit. Even then, she couldn't tell the truth, not even to Charlotte, the person she trusted most in the world. She'd been too ashamed, too humiliated.
The doorbell rang again. Charlotte answered it, and a trio of neighbors came through the door, each carrying more food. The odor of greasy fried chicken assaulted Lauren's senses. The smell and the thought of eating made her want to throw up.
Panic swirled in her gut along with the nausea. She couldn't do this anymore. She couldn't listen to their stories and memories of a Billy they really didn't know.
She pushed away from the table with an abruptness that caused her chair to nearly topple backward, saved only by Sam grabbing it.
"I have to go. I'm sorry, I can't ... I need ..."
What do I need?
She had no idea. She had to get out of this kitchen before she flew into a million pieces. But everyone was staring at her as if she'd lost her mind.
"I'm sorry," she repeated, edging toward the door. One more step and she could reach the hook where the keys to her mother's ancient Honda Civic were hanging. "I need to go."
"I'll come with you," Charlotte said.
"No!" She forced herself to calm down, needing to dispel the worried look from her sister's face. "I mean, I need to be by myself for a while. I'm fine, Char, really I am. But I'm not good company right now. I have to go."
She didn't wait for Charlotte's reply. Sliding her feet into a pair of her mother's flip-flops, she grabbed the car keys and pushed open the screen door, breaking into a run once she'd cleared the back steps. As her foot hit the gas pedal, she let out a relieved sigh, feeling like she could breathe again.
Lauren sped down the highway with no real idea where she was headed. She rolled down her window, letting the hot prairie wind howl through the car. How she wished the wind could blow away her troubled thoughts. But nothing could help her. Guilt and anger were so tangled with love and betrayal that she didn't know what to feel or think.
How I could I love Billy and hate him at the same time?
She needed to say goodbye. That last time she'd spoken to Billy, only days before his death, she'd been so angry, so hurt. They'd argued, and she'd said things she now regretted. She didn't want those ugly words to be the last thing she said to him.
Lauren turned the car around and drove the short distance to the cemetery, parking the Civic behind some trees where it couldn't be seen from the main road. As she got out of the car, she was greeted with the sound of birds singing in the trees and the sweet smell of freshly cut hay in a nearby field. A sense of homecoming washed over her. She'd missed North Dakota so much these past five years.
Grasshoppers jumped in all directions as she walked past the silent headstones to the freshly dug mound of earth where Billy had been laid to rest. She stared at the grave, her head bowed.
"We really made a mess of things, didn't we?"
The only reply was the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. "We both made a lot of mistakes. I lost faith in your dream, and I got tired of the way we were living. But you hurt me, Billy. You cheated and lied, and you hurt me."
Her eyes filled with tears, and she held back a sob. "I was so angry with you. I'm still angry with you. But I never wanted you to die! Why did you have to go and die?"
She drew a deep, shaky breath. "The last time I saw you, we fought and I said some horrible, ugly things to you. I'm sorry for that, Billy. I truly am. But you said some ugly things, too. Maybe someday I'll be able to forgive you for the things you've done, but I'm not sure I'll ever forget."
She stood silent over the grave for a long time. Finally, she looked up and saw the sun hanging low in the western sky. Her family would be worried about her. She wasn't ready to go home yet, but it was time to leave this place. Time to say goodbye.
"Goodbye Billy. I did love you. Once."
As she got back in the Civic and drove away from the cemetery, her emotions swirled in turmoil. Would she ever feel peace again?
Almost without realizing it, Lauren found herself on a back road that led to the secret spot in the pasture that Billy and Cole's father had once owned. The three of them had hung out there as teenagers, and she'd had her first, and only, cigarette there. She laughed out loud at the memory of the coughing fit that had followed her attempt at being cool. She remembered Billy's laughter and the way Cole had pounded her back to help her breathe.
She pulled up to the barbed-wire fence leading to the pasture. Cole's half-ton truck, easily identified by the logo of his veterinary clinic painted on the doors, was parked nearby. She wondered if he was struggling with memories, too.
She eased herself between two rows of barbed wire and followed a well-worn path to the hideout. Perhaps this place wasn't as secret as she'd once believed.
Cole sat on a log, staring into the cold ashes of a recent fire. He wore the same white dress shirt he'd worn to the funeral, his suit jacket lying on the ground next to him. He looked up in surprise as she approached.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Running away." She sat on the log next to his. "I couldn't handle the casserole brigade."
"The endless train of people dropping by with food." She involuntarily shivered. "I can't face all the well-meaning platitudes and condolences right now."
He dipped his head in a nod. "That's the reason I left Mom's apartment. I couldn't take it anymore either."
She was glad he understood. "It looks like this place has been discovered. I guess it's not our little secret anymore."
Cole chuckled and pointed to his left, toward a clump of trees. An old couch had been dragged between the bushes. Beer cans were strewn nearby.
"Apparently not. Tim says kids come out here for bush parties almost every weekend, at least until the weather turns cold. He doesn't mind as long as they stay in this one corner of the pasture and don't wreck his fence."
Lauren searched her mind for the name. In five years she'd lost track of people in Masonville. "Tim?"
"Tim Rodgers. He bought the land from my mom after Dad died and she sold the farm. Did you know Garrett tried to buy it from Tim recently?"
"My brother Garrett? He's never farmed in his life. What would he want with a quarter section of pasture?"
Cole shrugged. "I don't know, maybe raise some stock. Now he's out of the military, I guess he's trying to figure out what to do with his life. Unfortunately, Tim's son decided to run cattle here, so Garrett didn't get the land."
Garrett hadn't shared his plans, or his dreams, with her. She'd missed many events in the lives of her brother and sister in the last five years, and she ached with the hurt of it.
Lauren jumped to her feet, too restless to sit. "Do you remember the Halloween Billy TP'd the principal's house? Mr. Schneider nearly had a stroke, he was so mad."
Cole gave a melancholy laugh. "Mostly I remember that Billy talked me into helping him do the deed. He managed to convince everybody at school that some kids from Bismarck had done it. Only the three of us — you and me and Billy — knew the truth."
"And then Billy organized a group of us to take the TP out of Mr. Schneider's trees. Everyone thought he was some kind of hero."
"Yeah, he got a charge out of that. He enjoyed pulling the wool over everyone's eyes," Cole said. "At least the toilet paper didn't stay in Mr. Schneider's trees all winter."
"Yeah." Billy had been a contradiction, even as a teenager. But she'd only seen his charming side. She'd thought he was wonderful, perfect.
Lauren wrapped her arms around herself as she paced, suddenly feeling cold despite the warm evening. Cole picked up his jacket and stood to place it over her shoulders.
"Is that better?"
"Yes. Thank you."
She walked around the ring of stones that had contained countless campfires. In her mind's eye she saw the dead ashes flame to life once more. "I got drunk for the first time here. Do you remember? Billy got hold of a bottle of whiskey from somewhere, and we drank the whole thing. I think I threw up in the trees over there by the couch. As I recall, you held back my hair."
"I remember," he said with a chuckle. "You nearly threw up on my shoes. We had to sober you up before we could take you home."
"I was hung over the next day. I told my mom I had the flu, but she didn't buy it. She made me scrub toilets and wash floors."
"My dad used to make me hoe potatoes in the garden whenever I was hung over." He sighed. "Damn, I miss him."
Lauren pulled Cole's jacket a little closer. Billy could be so sweet, so caring. She could almost hear his laugh, see his face. That was the Billy she'd loved, the boy who'd brought her here, just the two of them, and made love to her for the first time. The boy who'd held her and told her he loved her.
That was the Billy she wanted to remember. Not the man he became.
If they hadn't fought that last time, would he still be alive? She'd told him their marriage was over, that she never wanted to see him again. As far as she was concerned, he was dead to her. She was tormented by the thought that their argument had upset him as much as it had her. Had her ugly words caused him to lose his concentration on the road?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Child of Mine"
Copyright © 2019 Jana Richards.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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