Tomilola sat outside her bedroom on the balcony that ran the length of the back of the house. She rocked gently in one of the rockers that were strewn around the balcony and drew in a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves as she leaned back, propped her feet up on the railing and watched the sun dip beneath the hill's top. The already waning twilight faded to night. Staring at the twinkling stars, she let the day's emotions take hold of her.
Fresh tears pooled in her eyes. Tears she'd been fighting all day. Tears of frustration and sadness and anger. After Demola's little bombshell on the trail, she'd come back to the estate and spent the day sifting through the bills in her father's office. It had made for a tumultuous afternoon.
Footsteps echoed in the dark.
She quickly swiped at the tears and glanced toward the edge of the house where the sound of crunching gravel reverberated through the night. Who was wandering back here? The sound of crunching gravel turned into that of someone climbing the stairs at the end of the balcony. Demola's head appeared as he made his way up the steps, the moonlight glinting off the sharp angles and planes of his face.
She looked heavenward, praying for strength. "Demola, I'm not sure I'm up for another one of your surprises. Seems like every time you appear on the horizon, my world gets a little shakier." He stepped onto the balcony and held up his hands, a bottle in one, two shot glasses in the other. "No surprises Just thought a good stiff drink would go down good about now."
"A little anesthetic for the havoc you created earlier?" He winced, striding over to her and setting the bottle and glasses on the rail. "Something like that." She drew a deep breath, feeling guilty for dumping her bad mood on him. "Sorry. I'm shooting the messenger, I know. But, unfortunately, the two people I want to be taking over the coals right now aren't here. And -"
"I am," He extracted a lime and small knife from his shirt pocket and set them on the railing. She nodded.
He removed a saltshaker from his front jeans pocket and put it next to the line. "That's okay. I can take it."
Yes, he seemed to have as much inner strength as outer strength. He absorbed all the anger she threw his way with the calm acceptance of a man who had a bone-deep understanding of the world around him and where he belonged in it. And because she had never known where she belonged in this world, it was a quality that made him just that much more appealing.
Too damned appealing. Squelching those thoughts, she concentrated on the bottle in his hand. Red Label. Of course. She curled her free hand into a soft fist and poured herself a glass.
She waited while he got his own drink ready, then held her glass up in toast. "To a quiet, uneventful day tomorrow."
"Hear! Hear!" He clinked his shot glass to hers. They both licked the salt from their hands, drowned their shots and bit into their limes. The liquor rocketed down her throat, hit her stomach and raced into her bloodstream. She rocked back, closing her eyes, letting the warmth slide through her. Letting the alcohol relax the muscles along the back of her neck, the tight knot in her stomach and chest.
Something clinked against the lip of her glass. She opened her eyes to find Demola pouring her another shot. "Easy, I'm not much of a drinker."
"Just sip at this one." He set the bottle down, she held her hand out. He proceeded to pour himself another shot and downed it without the salt and lime embellishments. She raised a brow. Had this day been as unpleasant for him as it had for her? Maybe. While she'd been certain from the moment she'd met him that he was determined to do whatever was required to fulfil his obligation to her father, including playing dirty, she didn't think he liked making her unhappy.
She touched the end of her tongue and took a tiny sip of the drink as he filled his shot glass again. He obviously planned to stay awhile. "You going to pull up a rocker or just tower over me while we drink?" He pulled one of the other rockers alongside hers, grabbed his drink, sat and propped his feet next to hers on the railing. "Pretty out here tonight."
She stared at the full moon hanging over the distant hills. "I will give dear Dad that. He picked a beautiful place to build his little empire." Demola winced but he didn't say anything. He just sat, quietly rocking, occasionally sipping at his drink, his shirt gently brushing her arm as his chair moved slowly back and forth, his heat seeping into her shoulder like a warm, tantalizing breeze.
Her traitorous gaze slid to his boots, ran up his long, denim-clad legs and settled at the masculine bulge at the top of those legs. Oh, man. She dragged her eyes off him and took another fortifying swallow of red label.
Demola took a sip of his own drink, then turned his gaze on her. "You want to talk about the estate? Or your dad? You must have a million questions." He was back to pushing again. She slanted him a look "What if I say no?"
"Then we'll just sit here, watch the moon climb up the sky."
She laughed. "And how long do you think you'll be able to do that before you break down and bring the subject up again?"
He smiled, rocking gently in his chair "Maybe a minute or two."
"If I'm lucky." Her thoughts slid back to the troubling questions that had plagued her all afternoon. "My mom was raised in group and foster homes, did you know that?"
He looked over at her, the moon's silvery light highlighting and shadowing his face. "I didn't know."
"Her parents were killed in an automobile accident when she was eight." She closed her eyes, thinking how tiny, how vulnerable a little girl of eight was. "Her father and mother didn't have any family that could take her in. So my mother became a ward of the state."
"And she was never adopted?"
"Nope. She used to dream of it. Said once she recovered from her parents' deaths, she'd lay awake nights and fantasize about a couple coming along and falling in love with her, adopting her and bringing her home. More than anything else in the world, she wanted a home and someone to love her."
"But it didn't happen?"
"No. And it left a hole in her, I think. Made her desperate for someone's love. Which is what I don't understand. If my father loved her, why'd she play around on him?"
He shrugged philosophically. "The Big W was a new estate then; your father was just starting to build it. If she was needy for attention, maybe he didn't have enough time for her. Maybe she felt neglected,"
She thought of all the men who'd come and gone in her mother's life. "Maybe, God knows, when Mom was with a man she wanted all his attention. Needed all his attention. She even hated it when they went to work. I think its why most of the guys left. They knew whatever they gave would never be enough."
"So you're at least entertaining the thought your mother might have contributed to what happened all those years ago."
"I'm entertaining the idea. But I still have reservations."
He watched her, his gaze concerned and sympathetic. "What's bothering you the most?"
"If my mom never intended to ask for my dad's help, why did she pretend to call? Why tell me she was going to call?"
"I don't know. Maybe just to make your dad look bad. It wouldn't be the first time one spouse vilified another."
"Maybe." But that answer didn't ease the turmoil roiling inside her.
"Is it that she pretended to call that bothers you, or that she so obviously didn't want help from your dad?"
"The latter, I think. It just seems so...self-destructive." She thought back, the faces of several men flashing through her head. Men that had been involved with her mother, sometimes for months. She sighed, dropping her head back against the rocker. "But now that I think about it, self-destructive is a pretty good way to describe Mom's relationships. Most of the men she brought home were users. Takers. And once there was no more to take, they left."
"Did she ever see any of them again? After they left? Try to rekindle the relationship?"
Now there was a provoking bunch of questions. "No, she didn't. As much as my mother wanted to be loved. As much as she wanted a man to come into her life and stay, if things didn't work out, it was over. Completely over. Once they left our house or we left theirs, she never saw them again. Not to settle up on old bills or for a cup of coffee or for anything."
"She never saw them again?" Surprise sounded in his voice.
"Never." She stared up at the stars, trying to make sense out of that quirk. Trying to understand why her mother hadn't ever called her father. And why she'd gone to such lengths to make sure Tomilola never did, either. "Maybe she felt like too much of a loser after a relationship failed and she just wanted to put it behind her, pretend it never happened. Or maybe, after being tossed from one foster family to the next as a kid, she thought further contact was futile. Whatever the reason, I never saw any of them again. In fact, we usually moved to a different town after a breakup. Although that could just as well have had to do with her trying to make sure my father never found us."
"You've been thinking about the name change thing?"
She nodded. "When you put all the pieces together, it certainly looks like she was making sure he didn't find us. Maybe she was afraid he'd take me away. Maybe. . . I don't know." Her brain was too numb to think anymore. "You have to realize that with her gone, you may never understand her motivations for everything she did."
Sadness washed through her, "I know."
"It sounds like you moved around a lot. Did you like it? Seeing new places?" Having forced her to face some of the hard truths of her past, he changed the subject, steering her on to easier ground. And she was glad for it. "I hated it. Mom wasn't the only one who dreamed about having a house. A home. Before she got sick, even after sometimes, Mom and I used to talk about having our own house."
She smiled thinking of those times. "We'd plan it all out, you know? First, we'd decide what kind it was. A one-story ranch or a two-story contemporary or just a little grandma house on a quiet corner. Then we'd decorate it. Plan what kind of curtains we'd have in the kitchen. And where we'd put the garden. We always planned a garden."
She nodded, laughing.
"You wanted roses."
"Yes. Red roses, mind you. They had to be red." She smiled, remembering. "It was fun, planning. Dreaming." "But you never had a house of your own?"
"Are you kidding? There were times when we couldn't even afford a cheap hotel. There was one time, though, when Mom was dating this guy with money. Not money like this." She waved her hand, indicating the Big W. "But enough money he could help pay the rent and have a little left over for a few fun things. A night out at the galleria, an afternoon at the beach. Anyway, Mom and I bought some material and hand stitched some kitchen curtains for the tiny apartment we were renting at the time. That was cool."
She shot him a sideways glance. "You don't think it sounds cool. You think it sounds pitiful."
"Not pitiful. But...hard."
She shrugged. "It was sometimes. But I had my mom. I always knew she loved me."
"Your father loved you, too." He locked his gaze on hers. "And he was looking for you, Tomi. He - was - looking."
A million emotions pounded through her. Pain, frustration, loss. "Yes, it looks like he was. And I'm softeniing toward him. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel guilty about it."
"That's understandable, if not exactly fair. You've thought negatively about your father for twenty-two years; that isn't going to change overnight. Particularly since your father's version of what happened that night isn't any prettier than your mother's."
"No, it's not," Her voice was as weary as she felt. "But...I would suggest you think very hard abut cutting your dad out of your life just because your mom did. You need to find a way to let them both into your heart." He stood, pulled a small envelope from his back pocket and handed it to her. "Your dad left this for you. I don't know what's in there. But maybe it will help." He stood and headed for the end of the balcony.
She stared at the envelope, then at his retreating back. The need to call him back danced on her tongue. She didn't want to be alone. It seemed as if she'd faced every scary moment of her life alone. She didn't want to face this one that way, too.
Unfortunately, she was afraid to think where her current vulnerability coupled with the sexual tension between them might lead if her father's missive upset her and Demola decided to hold her again. Demola might have the wherewithal to keep things in check, to keep things at a comforting level, but she was pretty sure she didn't. So she clamped her mouth shut and watched him walk away.
Just before he headed down the stairs, he stopped and turned to her. "You said you've always wanted a home. This could be your home, Tomi. It's a beautiful place. A good place."
Old longing rushed in, but only for a moment. She shook her head. "I don't think so, Demola. My mother's memory aside, this place is too rich for my taste. I could never own anything this lavish. There are too many people out there doing without."
He shrugged. "So downsize. Or make the place work for you. Your dad plowed the money the estate made back into the place so he'd have something grand to bring you and your mom back to if he found you. But you don't have to do the same. Stop growing the place and use the money for your charity. Or whatever else you'd like to use it for."
The idea slid through her, sneaking underneath her confusion and pain to tease her, tempt her. She liked the idea of having a steady income to use for her charity. But....could she make enough peace with the past to make this her home?
"Just something to think about," he pointed out.
She shot him a wry smile. "Like I need more of that."
He returned the smile. "I"ll see you tomorrow."
Without another word, he disappeared down the stairs. She looked at the envelope clutched in her hand.
From her father.
Mouth dry, heart pounding, she broke the seal and pulled the card out with shaking fingers. Opening it, she angled her body so the small amount of light coming from her bedroom fell on the card, highlighting the boldly scrawled words. Holding her breath, she read.
I've composed a dozen notes. All of them from my heart, but most of them were long-winded and did more to appease my conscience than anything else. Now I've decided to say only the things that matter.
I've missed you. . .more than I can ever tell.
I love you. . .more than you will ever know.
I'll be watching from above, or perhaps below, doing what I couldn't in life. . .taking care of you.
She closed her eyes against the words. Words she would have sold her soul as a child to hear. Words that would have made so many dark, scary nights so much more bearable. Words that pierced her heart like a thousand knives, because they'd come so, so late.
Tears sprang to her eyes.
And this time she let them fall.