Three years earlier . . .
ean walked into the small apartment he shared with Linda, his girlfriend for the past year and a half, with a sense of excitement turning his stomach into knots. His hands shook a little when he thought of what he was about to do. As he looked down at the box in the palm of his right hand, he grinned. This was it. He was about to ask the woman of his heart to marry him. They’d dated long enough, damn it; it was time to put a ring on the woman’s finger. To show everyone that she was taken. That she was loved. He wanted to hear her call him husband. Hell, he even wanted her to have his children. How crazy was that?
Sounds coming from the bedroom caught Dean’s attention, and he frowned. He looked at the clock on the wall next to the bookcase. At three o’clock in the afternoon, Linda was supposed to be at work still. The waitressing job sucked and he wanted her to quit, but she’d refused, saying they needed the money. His construction business wasn’t doing too badly though. Soon, she’d be able to ditch the crappy job and be a stay-at-home mom, the way she’d always talked about.
When another sound caught his attention, Dean tucked the ring in his coat pocket and headed down the short hallway. She was home and in bed; it wasn’t the way he’d wanted to propose, but he could make it work. The closer he got to the closed bedroom door the more the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Laughter spilled out from the small space between the door and the threshold. Not all of it feminine laughter, he realized. Dean’s gut clenched as he took hold of the handle and turned. The sight on the bed had him frozen in place. Linda, the woman he was seconds away from asking to marry him, had her mouth wrapped another man’s cock. Dean couldn’t speak, could barely breathe. He shifted on his feet, and the movement was all it took to get the attention of the pair of lovers. Legs and arms flailed about as Linda and her nooner attempted to move apart and cover themselves. As Linda tried and tried to get the blanket wrapped around her nude body, Dean looked over at the blond-haired man sitting on the side of the bed—the same bed Dean had slept in not too many hours earlier—and frowned as he recognized him as the cook at the restaurant Linda worked at. Ah, so that’s why she didn’t want to quit. Christ, he’d been such a fool. A stupid, lovesick chump.
“Apparently you don’t just serve greasy burgers and bad coffee at that shitty restaurant, huh, babe?”
Jimmy stood, his face bleached of color. “Uh, I—”
Dean held up a hand. “Save it. Just take your trash and go.”
Linda’s startled cry caught his attention. He pointed to her. “You might want to wipe the come off your chin before you leave,” Dean bit out. “Could prove embarrassing.”
“This was a mistake,” Linda said as her eyes filled with tears. “A one-time thing, I swear, babe. I’ve never cheated on you before. Never!”
The look of disbelief that Jimmy shot her way said it all. One-time thing, my ass. Dean knew he’d been a blind fool, but his eyes were wide open now. He strode across the room and took hold of her chin in a firm grip. “Do us both a favor and don’t speak. Just get the fuck out of my sight.”
Dean released her and went to the door. “You have two hours to get your shit and go. You really don’t want to be here when I return, trust me.”
She shouted his name as he left. Dean could hear her all the way out the front door. When he reached the elevator and pushed the DOWN button his hand was as steady as a rock. Every bit of emotion seemed to have dried up. He felt completely numb clear to his bones. He’d loved her. She’d been sweet and loving. They’d been perfect for each other, everyone had said. Now the only thing Dean could see was her mouth giving another man a blow job. It would be forever branded into his brain.
As the elevator doors opened, Dean stepped forward. Once he was sure he was alone, he reached into his coat pocket and found the box with the pretty diamond ring nestled safely inside. “Never again,” he said as he stared at it. Yeah, he’d been a fool, but he was a quick learner. Hell, he couldn’t even claim it was the first time a woman had burned him. It’d happened twice before. The only difference this time around was the fact that Dean had been ready to marry Linda. To hell with it. It’d be a cold day before he let a woman get so close again.
When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open, Dean saw an older woman waiting to enter. They traded places, but before the doors could close again, he handed her the box. At the confused look she sent him, he explained, “As it turns out, I don’t need it.”
She opened the box and gasped. “It’s a diamond ring!”
“Yep. Keep it. Sell it. Makes no difference.”
The doors slid shut on her next words. Dean pulled out his cell phone and dialed his brother. Wade answered on the first ring. “What’s up, bro?”
“Linda and I . . . broke up.” He couldn’t bring himself to say how that came about. Seeing it was enough. He sure as shit didn’t want to talk about it.
“Damn, that sucks. I thought for sure you two were going to be heading down the aisle soon.”
“Yeah,” he choked out. “Got any beer?”
“Better, I have whiskey.”
“My hero. See you in a few.”
“Hey, you okay?”
Dean rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to wrap myself around a tree, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not quite what I meant.”
“I know,” he said, realizing Wade was worried about him. Wade was the oldest and as such he always worried. “Look, man, I’ll be fine. This is nothing a good drunken stupor can’t fix.”
“Fine, but drive careful,” Wade warned.
“Seat belt and all,
” he tossed back.
They hung up and Dean was once again alone with his thoughts as he headed out of the apartment building to his car. The image of Linda, naked and loving another man, sprang right back into his mind.
He wondered how many years it would take before he stopped seeing it.
Present day . . .
atherine sat in stunned silence for several seconds, absorbing all her mother’s doctor had just revealed. He’d called early in the morning and asked if he could come over for a visit. He’d said he had something private to discuss with her. Something to do with her parents, he’d explained. Since her parents had died in a horrible car accident only two months before, Catherine couldn’t guess what the doctor could possibly want to talk about. Curiosity had won out in the end and she’d found herself asking him over for coffee.
Doctor Cabel had been more than her mother’s doctor, of course. He was their family physician as well as a dear friend to her parents for as long as Catherine could remember. The kind, older man with gentle brown eyes had given her her first shots. Still, listening to his rushed revelation, Catherine was beginning to think she’d fallen down the rabbit hole. Surely this was nothing more than a strange dream. Had to be. If that were the case, though, she wished like hell she’d wake up.
“Are you serious?” she asked, emotion causing her voice to shake. “This has to be a bad joke. It’s simply not possible.”
“I’m sorry, Catherine,” Doctor Cabel said, sympathy in his gaze as he looked at her from across the perfectly polished cherrywood coffee table. “I’m very serious. You were adopted.”
“How? Why?” She shook her head in an attempt to clear away the fog. It seemed to be descending at a rapid rate with each word the doctor uttered. “How could my mother not tell me?” She thought of her father, the way he used to give her whisker kisses, and her stomach knotted. “How could
not tell me?”
The doctor sat back in the chair and pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. He scrunched up his brows as if he was as confused as she. “I don’t know the answer to that. Although, I truly wish I did. All I can tell you is that your mother is not your biological mother, Catherine.”
Catherine had been devastated when she’d received the news that she’d lost both her beloved parents in one cruel twist of fate. They were both fifty-five years old, too young to be taken away from her. A drunk driver, the police had said. Catherine had worked herself to the bone to keep from being swallowed up by the grief she’d felt from losing them so unexpectedly. And now this.
“Are you telling me that Mama told you I was adopted but not me?” The betrayal had tears burning her eyes. “Why?”
The doctor shook his head. “No, no.” He slumped in despair. All at once Catherine felt sorry for the man. He was only the messenger, after all. “I’m making a mess of this, and I’m sorry. The thing is, Jean never came out and admitted the truth to me. But, Catherine, I was your mother’s physician and I examined her on several occasions. What I know for certain is that she never gave birth to a child. Any child.”
Catherine wanted to lash out at someone, and who better than the man who’d unwittingly helped keep her mother’s secret? Maybe it hadn’t been his secret to reveal, but he’d known all these years and he’d never said a word. “Fine. She didn’t actually confide in you, but you knew the truth, Doctor Cabel. Why didn’t you ever ask my parents about me?” She threw her hands in the air. “I mean, didn’t you think I had a right to know the truth?”
Her harsh words caused the doctor’s cheeks to turn scarlet. “I didn’t know all the facts. At first, I wasn’t even sure she was keeping you in the dark. In fact, I could’ve easily brought it up to you on one of the many occasions you visited my office. Without even realizing it, I could’ve exposed your parents so easily.” He shook his head and frowned. “They got lucky there.”
Catherine’s anger took on momentum at the doctor’s statement. “Lucky? She kept this from me my entire life and you call that lucky?”
He held up a hand as if to stop the runaway train of her fury from running him over. “That’s not what I meant. Look, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this. All I can think is that she hadn’t figured out the right way to tell you.”
Catherine shot to her feet and strode toward the fireplace. She stared at the family portrait that hung above it, feeling the stab of betrayal clear through to her heart. Her smiling mama with the pretty green eyes and fair complexion seemed to mock her. Her father, so strong and trustworthy, stood behind them, every inch the proud husband and father. Catherine let out a breath she hadn’t even been aware she was holding.
“I could think of any number of ways,” Catherine gritted out as she clenched her eyes tight, as if by doing so she could lock out the pain. “Like, ‘Hey, you’re adopted, pass the peas.’ ” Catherine turned and saw the misery on the doctor’s face. She really did feel bad for him. It wasn’t his fault her mother had lied, Catherine reminded herself. As she stared at him, however, something else struck her. “You’re only telling me now because the doctor–patient confidentiality clause ended with her death, aren’t you?”
He stood and crossed the room. As he placed a hand on her shoulder, Catherine felt a little better. “That’s part of it, yes,” he said gently. “But I also felt you should know the truth. I’m not just your doctor, Catherine.” He awkwardly patted her. “I wish I could’ve said something sooner, but I simply couldn’t. Please understand, dear, if I could’ve spared you this pain, I would’ve.”
Catherine tried to smile, but it hurt too damn much so she gave up the effort. “The only person, or persons rather, to blame are gone.” She waved a hand through the air. “They’re buried, along with all the answers to the many questions running through my head.”
The doctor dropped his hands in his trouser pockets and said, “Maybe there is something among your mother’s belongings,” he offered. “Have you gone through everything already?”
Catherine thought of her parents’ bedroom and hope began to take seed. “No, actually. There is still quite a bit I have yet to deal with. I was going to spend today going through some of the stuff in the basement, but maybe I’ll tackle their bedroom instead.” She’d always thought of that room as their private domain. Catherine had been putting off going in there to sort through their things. Unfortunately, she no longer had the luxury of time. She wanted answers, because clearly there was a lot about herself she didn’t know. For starters, Catherine wanted to know who she was and where she’d come from.
He nodded and smiled. “There you go. Maybe you’ll find something that will help you understand why your mother chose to wait the way she did.”
Catherine shrugged. “Wait? You talk as if she intended to tell me someday when that might not be the case at all.”
“You and I both know that your mother wasn’t a cruel woman,” he gently chastised. “She loved you very much. I know she intended to tell you. I’m sure of it.”
“Maybe, but it won’t change the fact that she lied to me all these years. Nothing will fix that, Doctor.”
“True, but just try and keep in mind that she didn’t set out to hurt you.”
Catherine was fresh out of things to say. Her heart felt bruised and her mind was in chaos. “Thanks for coming,” she said, wrapping her arms around the man, bolstered when she felt him hug her in return. When they parted, Catherine pasted a smile on her face. “I know this had to be difficult. I’m sorry my parents put you in such a position.”
“I cared for Jean and Russ. They were good people. My friends. I only hope you find something among their things that might shed some light on all this.” He started out of the room, but when he reached the entryway, he turned to her and said, “Remember that I’m your friend as well. Call me if you want to talk. Anytime, Catherine.”
“Thank you, I will.”
It wasn’t until the doctor left that Catherine lost her battle with the tears. She simply dropped into the nearest chair and cried herself dry. It was nearing dinnertime before Catherine was able to pull herself together enough to pick up the phone. Mary, Catherine thought, she would know what to do. She always did.
When her friend’s cheery voice came over the line, Catherine nearly lost it all over again. “Mary, it’s Cat,” she explained, using the nickname her friend had given her when they’d first met back in high school. “Are you busy tonight?”
Mary laughed. “Jesus, no. I’m sitting her matching up socks and watching reruns of
. Please tell me you changed your mind about pizza and beer tonight.”
Mary had called the night before and offered to come over and hang out. She’d done a lot of that since the news of Catherine’s parents. No doubt about it, Catherine would’ve been lost without Mary these last two months. “I, uh, I’m not sure where to begin.”
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Mary asked, suddenly sounding more alert.
Unwilling to get into it all over the phone, Catherine simply said. “Pizza and beer. We’re going to need a lot of both.”
“I’ve got it covered,” Mary said. “I’ll be there in a jiff. Just hang tight.”
“Thanks,” Catherine said. Her voice shook with emotion, but she was beyond caring.
After hanging up, Catherine sat back and waited. Mary would come and they would tackle this together, the way they’d done so many things over the years. “I’m not alone,” Catherine reminded herself. But when she looked up at the family portrait she felt very much alone.
Or was she?
If she was adopted, then who were her biological mother and father? And did she have siblings? Questions swirled around inside Catherine’s head until she thought she might be sick. Lies had a way of finding their way into the light, her mama had once said. Catherine shook her head when she thought of her mother imparting that bit of wisdom. She glanced up once more at the portrait of her grinning parents. “If only you practiced what you preached,” Catherine bit out.