Read an Excerpt
As the school bus turned the corner onto Fourth Street, Ben Foster pulled to the curb fifteen feet before the stop sign and shut off the engine. There was something inherently wrong with what he was doing — spying on a bunch of schoolkids in hopes of catching a glimpse of a twelve-year-old girl. It was creepy. Perverse.
And the fact that the girl was his never-before-seen daughter didn’t make it feel any less strange. But what was the alternative? Walk up to the house, knock on the door, and say, “Hey, darlin’, say hello to your long-lost father”?
Maybe sometime, but not today. All he wanted today was to see her.
The bus came to a stop with a squeal of brakes, the doors opened, and a half-dozen kids tumbled out. The two he was interested in looked both ways, then ran across the street in front of the bus. They were both blonde-haired and fair-skinned, both pretty, but it was the older one who held Ben’s attention.
Her hair fell past her shoulders and was pulled back in a fancy braid. She carried her backpack as if it were too heavy, and she moved with the unconscious ease of a girl who wasn’t yet fully aware of her body. She was beautiful. Delicate. Perfect.
He’d learned quite a bit about her in the past few weeks — that she lived here in Bethlehem, New York, in the blue house down the street, with her sister and brother, their aunt, uncle, and cousin. She was in the sixth grade, made A’s and B’s, and had a best friend named Susan. Her aunt Emilie worked at the local inn and had risked prison to keep the kids together when their mother, Berry, got locked up, and her uncle Nathan was a cop. Her name was Alanna Marie Dalton.
And she was his daughter.
Ben had had about thirteen years to get used to the idea of having a daughter, but truthfully he’d rarely spared her a thought. The day Berry had told him she was pregnant, he’d told her good-bye and he’d never seen her again. He’d never seen Alanna, either, and at odd times he suspected that might have been his loss.
It had definitely been his grandmother’s loss. She’d gone to her grave regretting that she’d never been able to meet her only great-grandchild.
His throat tightened at the thought of her. Emmaline Bodine had been the most important woman in his life. She’d taken him in every time his mother had taken off, and she’d done her best to teach him things his parents hadn’t. The fact that she’d failed was his fault, not hers. He’d been too wild, had had too many bad examples to counteract her good one. But she’d never stopped loving him, until the day she died two months ago. If he knew her, she was probably watching over him somewhere up in heaven, waiting, hoping for him to finally, just once in his life, do the right thing.
Whatever that was.
Refocusing his attention, he looked across the street just as the Victorian’s front door closed behind the two girls. He thought about staying there a while longer, in case they came back out, then decided against it. The last thing he needed was some housewife calling the cops on him. Hell, with his luck, it would be Alanna’s uncle who showed up to haul him off to jail.
He started the engine and pulled away from the curb, driving slowly past the Victorian and the house where Alanna lived. He headed back to Main Street, then downtown, making an illegal turn to park in front of the diner he’d noticed earlier. It was late for lunch, early for dinner, which meant he had the place mostly to himself, and that suited him just fine. In small towns like Bethlehem, people tended to pay a lot of attention to strangers. At the moment, he’d just as soon do without that.
He slid into a booth, turned the coffee cup right side up, then gazed out the window. May in New York was more pleasant than back home in Georgia. Summer days in Georgia weren’t fit for anything but stretching out in the shade or under a ceiling fan with an endless supply of ice-cold beer and doing a lot of nothing.
And that summed up his life — a lot of nothing. He’d lived in a lot of places, worked at going-nowhere jobs that required brawn rather than brains, drunk a lot of beer, amused himself with a lot of women. He’d had no ambitions, no thoughts for the future, no strings but Emmaline. He hadn’t amounted to anything, and his grandmother had died knowing that.
The steamy aroma of coffee drew his gaze from the town outside and his thoughts back to the north. “Welcome to Henry’s,” the waitress said, her voice too cheerful by half. “Do you need a few minutes to look over the menu?”
Ben glanced down at the plastic-encased menu with the name — Harry’s Diner — printed across the front. Flipping it open, he scanned the offerings. “I’ll have the pot roast.”
“Good choice. You can’t go wrong with Hank’s pot roast.”
“He owns Henry’s.” She glanced at the menu and frowned. “Harry’s. I said Harry’s, didn’t I? Of course I did. Henry owns Harry’s. The other waitress is ... Mary? Maude? Marva? And I’m Gloria.”
“Are you sure about that?”
With a flush and a smile, she checked her name tag. “I’m sure. Who are you?”
“Ben Foster.” He couldn’t ignore the hand she offered without being rude, and his grandmother hadn’t raised him to be rude, especially to women of a certain age.
“Welcome to Bethlehem, Ben Foster. You’re not from around here, are you? Not with an accent like that.”
“No, ma’am. I’m from Georgia.”
“And what brings you to this part of New York?”
It was a simple question, and he was going to give a simple lie. There was no reason to feel guilty about it, except that Emmaline had hated his lies. “It looks like a good place to stop a while.”
“Oh, it is. Bethlehem’s the best place on earth to live. Of course, you’ll see that for yourself soon enough. I’d best get your order in to Harold. I’d hate to see a man faint dead away from hunger when the best food in town is just a few steps away.”
Ben watched her go, then turned back to the window with a grin. He wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim Bethlehem the best place on earth — he was rather partial to hot days, the scent of magnolias, kudzu run wild, and lazy Southern drawls — but it wasn’t bad. Solid old buildings surrounded the town square, where kids played in the grass. Shoppers strolled along the sidewalks, and mothers rocked babies on park benches. It was almost too wholesome, clean, and prosperous a scene to believe.
If it was as good as it looked, Alanna was lucky to have ended up there.
As he watched, a car pulled into the space next to his and emphasized his thought about prosperity. The silver Mercedes gleamed so brightly in the afternoon sunlight that it almost hurt to look at it. The woman who drove it damn near gleamed, too, unfolding from the sports car more gracefully than he would have thought possible for an Amazon. She stood at least six feet tall, most of her height taken up by long, long legs of the sort men built erotic fantasies around. Her hair was black, parted in the middle, and fell in a sleek, undisturbed line past her shoulders. Her pale skin looked so fine that his fingers itched to touch it, just to feel for himself if it could possibly be as soft as it looked. But he was no fool. He’d wager that no man with calloused hands had ever touched the woman. In fact, he wouldn’t risk money on the odds that any man had ever touched her — at least, not without an engraved invitation.
She moved so gracefully that she seemed to glide across the sidewalk and in the door, sparing no attention for anyone or anything as she took a seat in the booth next to his. Immediately she took a folder from the black bag she carried and bent her head over its contents, looking up only when the waitress approached.
“What can I get you, hon?”
“Just coffee, please.” Her voice was low, smooth, lacking the Southern accent he was fond of, but not unpleasant. If wealth and power had a sound, her voice was it.
“Can I interest you in a slice of fresh-baked apple pie?” Gloria asked. “It’s Howard’s specialty.”
“No, thank you.”
Gloria filled her coffee cup, topped off Ben’s, then went behind the counter to trade the carafe for his food. After setting it in front of him, she folded her arms across her middle and watched him take the first bite. “Good, no?”
“So, Ben, you said you’ll be stopping a while. How long is that?”
He’d thought he would come to Bethlehem, maybe see Alanna, maybe not. He’d intended to give Emmaline’s locket, the only heirloom the Bodine family had ever had, to Emilie Bishop to give Alanna someday, then head back down south, his obligation fulfilled. Now he wasn’t so sure. He thought he might like to meet Alanna, to see just once how it felt to be a father. He didn’t have any idea. If he cared enough to think about it, he could probably count the number of times in his life he’d laid eyes on his old man — fewer than fifteen for sure.
He was pretty sure he wasn’t looking to take on the role of father. He was years too late for that, and Alanna didn’t need him. She may have been cursed with worthless parents, but her aunt and uncle were good people, and they loved her like their own. What use could she possibly have for him?
He might as well stick around until he figured it out. “I don’t rightly know,” he said in response to Gloria’s question. “A few days, a few weeks. Maybe long enough to see if it really is the best place on earth.”
“Then you’ll be needing a place to stay. Let’s see ... Mrs. Laramie has that garage apartment, or ... No, it’s been rented. There are the new apartments over by the hospital — nice enough, but no personality. And the old apartments on the other side of town ... I believe ‘genteelly shabby’ would be a polite way to describe them.”
Ben grinned. Genteelly shabby, he was familiar with. Much of his home state could be so described. “Hold off on apartments, Gloria. I’m not moving here. Just staying a while. Is there a motel in town?”
Her smile was broad enough to add extra wrinkles to an already generous number. “Talk about good fortune. Bethlehem now has a motel. Just opened its doors last week. For years the only place to stay was Hallie McFlynn’s inn. Lovely place — old farmhouse, pastoral setting, beautiful rooms, best food in town.”
“I thought the best food in town was right here,” he teased.
“Oh, it is, it is. Molly’s place is lovely, but a little on the pricey side. But the motel is perfect for travelers just passing through or for folks on a budget. It’s right along Main, just a few blocks in that direction.” She pointed back in the direction he’d come, frowned, then pointed the opposite way. “I’m not much on directions, but I can find my way anywhere, given enough chances. The motel’s that way. You can’t miss it. Now ... What about a job? You’ll be needing one of those, too. What can you do?”
He could raise hell with the best of them, drink most people under the table and still get home under his own power, and give a beating as well as he took one. But those talents weren’t likely to be of any interest to a prospective employer. “I’m good with my hands. There’s not an engine made I can’t fix. I can frame a house, wire it, plumb it, drywall and finish it. I can put on a roof, take out a wall, build cabinets and stairs and porches and chairs.”
“Why, you’re just a jack-of-all-trades, aren’t you?”
“There’s a lot of construction going on in Bethlehem. Let me think and see what I can come up with.” She looked toward the door an instant before the bell rang, then called, “Have a seat, and someone will be right with you. Ben, you be sure to save room for some apple pie.”
He watched her disappear into the kitchen, then shifted his attention to the new customer, on his way to the Amazon’s table. He was tall, dark-haired, and carried a briefcase in one hand and a baby carrier, complete with baby, in the other. It was an incongruous sight — obviously successful businessman with baldheaded munchkin, Armani or something similar versus white bunnies and pastel flowers on a green background. Where was the nanny responsible for raising the child?
An older waitress whose pale red hair color was straight from a bottle came from the kitchen and greeted the man warmly. Maeve, according to the name tag she wore. Both waitress and businessman seemed genuinely friendly, but the Amazon merely waited for their conversation to end.
At last, the man ordered coffee and pie, laid the briefcase on the bench opposite the woman, and put the baby seat on the table. “Lynda,” he said, a cool greeting if the two of them had created the munchkin together. “Watch Rachel for a moment, will you? I’ve got recycled apple juice on my jacket.”
“But, Ross — ”
He was headed for the door marked Restrooms before she could go any further with her objection, and she was left looking appalled. Maybe she wasn’t the kid’s mother, Ben decided — hoped. Surely even the worst mother ever wouldn’t look at her own baby as if it were the nasty little creature from Alien, especially when the kid was being quiet and trouble-free.
But he didn’t know much more about mothers and babies than he did about fathers. The only way he knew to get in touch with his own mother was to visit the bars she frequented, and he hadn’t even been in the same state when Alanna was that tiny. By then Berry had gone off to Nashville, and he had damn near forgotten about her. They had both moved on — to other people, other promises for better futures, other problems. From what he understood, Alanna had paid the price.
Maybe it wasn’t too late to make it up to her. Or maybe it had been too late the day he’d told Berry good-bye.