Check out the Prologue here…
Fifteen Years Later
Ren parked his SUV in the driveway of his childhood home. Man, he hated this place.
No matter how much his mother had tried to get him and his father to get along, he couldn’t get away fast enough. That summer before he left for college was both the best and worst of his life.
The best because of what he had with Zara Wolfe. The worst because he broke her heart with his need to escape the man that he’d never be good enough for.
He’d left for college and came home for the first summer because he had to see Zara again. But he’d worked his ass off at the marina and listened to his father give him shit about wasting his time on computers. If he thought the time away would change things, he’d been wrong.
It’d been a slim hope he had. That he could have the best of it all. Zara and a career he wanted.
Nope. It didn’t happen and he didn’t see it ever getting better, only worse. Like a festering wound that no amount of care could ever get the pus out of.
He swore it was his last summer there after that. He’d told Zara that and she hadn’t believed him.
They’d made their relationship work that first year of college and he’d been so thrilled to be able to do it. He’d only been two hours away from home, her an hour from him. It was easy enough to see each other on the weekends when they could.
She still talked about returning to Mystic and didn’t understand he wasn’t going to. He’d told her enough, but she either had clouds in her eyes or thought his father would change. She knew the man. Nothing would ever change with him.
Yet something seemed to because when he was younger there were some good memories.
Ones that filled his brain in the past month and choked him, making him wonder what the hell went wrong or shifted in his father’s eyes.
A week before he and Zara were getting ready to return to college, Ren broke it off with her. A clean cut was what he said he needed. He couldn’t do it again; he couldn’t come home and be treated the way he was. He couldn’t work his ass off and stress over trying to be someone he wasn’t.
He was a man of his word and it killed him to say what he had to her.
They’d had no communication since.
All that was going to change. There was no way around it.
His life was in a tailspin out of control and he needed to regain his footing on the ice after a dizzying spin.
That meant being in Mystic for a few months…if not more.
He took a deep breath, turned his head to look in the backseat to see it all quiet and then got out. Shit was going to hit the fan, he knew, but he had to man up and do it.
He opened the back door and unbuckled his sleeping son. Six-month-old Max and he were fumbling this father-son thing together as best they could.
He released the seatbelt and picked the carrier up, his son passed out cold. He’d planned the trip around Max’s naptime after he’d eaten and was thankful for the quiet drive.
The fact his SUV was loaded up for not just him but also his son for a few months hadn’t been fun. He knew he’d forgotten things, but figured it might be easier to buy it here anyway. He’d make a few trips home at some point he was sure too.
His mother opened the front door for him and stood there shocked.
“Ren,” she said. “Who is that?”
“This is my son, Max,” he said.
His mother moved back and let him in. Her mouth opened and closed a few times and then she finally said, “You were here last month and never said a word. I’ve got so many questions and don’t know where to start.”
“I’m sure you do,” he said.
Last month, he’d gotten the call from his mother that his father had had a stroke and they were in the ER. He’d asked her to keep him up to date but wouldn’t come to town unless she asked. She hadn’t. He would have come for her and her only at that point. He figured he hadn’t seen his father in years so there was no reason to work the guy up.
He’d visited his mother once a year but avoided his father. He talked to his mother every few months too, but their communications were more emails and texts between those phone calls.
He supposed that was how it made it easier for him to hide the existence of his son.
Not that he knew of Max until four months ago himself.
“Come in. Take your jacket off and start talking. I’ll ask when you’re done.”
He appreciated that at least one of his parents gave him a chance to express himself. To tell his side of things. To be heard.
He removed his jacket and picked up the carrier to bring Max into the living room. Nothing had changed in here in the month since he came for his father’s funeral. He wasn’t sure why he thought it would.
His mother had said his father was fine after the stroke and there was nothing to worry about. Getting a call four days later to say he had a brain aneurysm and collapsed in the bedroom and didn’t make it had been more of a shock than Rachelle showing up on his doorstep with Max almost a year after he’d seen her last.
“This is Max,” he said. “He’s six months old. I didn’t know about him until four months ago. I’d been dating someone, nothing serious, and we went our separate ways.”
“How can you not know you have a child?” his mother asked.
He sighed. “I think she wasn’t positive whose it was,” he said. “I’m not sure of her reasons.” He wasn’t going to go into all the details now. It wasn’t the time.
“Max was with his mother when you came last month?”
“No,” he said. “Rachelle passed away three months ago.”
“I’m so sorry,” his mother said. “What happened? So you’ve got custody of Max? You’re doing this on your own? Who watched him while you were here last month?”
He knew it wouldn’t be long before the questions started to fly. “She overdosed,” he said. “She brought Max to my place four months ago and said she was in a bad place and couldn’t care for him.”
“She just left her child with you?” his mother asked. “You said she didn’t know if he was your son?”
“I don’t want to get into it all,” he said. “At least not right now. Max is mine. I had a paternity test done the minute she left him. I also retained a lawyer to get custody drawn up. Aside from her admitting she was in a bad place, she never told me. She dropped him off and left. When I tell you I was clueless, you have no idea.”
He’d never changed a diaper or fed a kid before. Everything was new and foreign to him. Thankfully he had some good friends.
“How do you know she died?” his mother asked.
“She was found in her apartment. She had my name as her emergency contact. I suppose it was one smart thing she did. I’m still going through all the legal channels to change his last name to mine. He has Rachelle’s, but I’ve got custody.” He waved his hand. That was another battle he was dealing with but nothing he was stressing over at this point.
“I don’t understand why you couldn’t have said something to me four months ago. Or even last month?” his mother said. There were tears in her eyes and he hated that.
“Mom. I’m flying by the seat of my pants. When it happened I didn’t know what to do. When Rachelle died, things got more out of hand. Max and I were finally settling into things as best as we could and then Dad had his stroke and passed last month. You’ve had enough to deal with.”
“That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have wanted to know I had a grandchild, Ren. I can’t believe you would be so cold and callous like that.”
The words sliced through him. He hated to think he was like his father, but it was not the first time he’d been accused of being that way. That he was the one that had to be right and could be cold to others.
He was with Zara too at the end. It was what he did to survive and it took everything he could not to beg her forgiveness afterward.
His mother didn’t deserve it though. She’d been the one person who had been in his corner in life.
“I planned on telling you,” he said. “Then everything with Dad happened and it didn’t seem the right time. But I’m here now.”
“You’re here because I need help to sell the marina. If I’d asked you to come to help me run it, you wouldn’t have.”
“No,” he said. “That isn’t a secret and you know it. I would have tried to talk you into selling it anyway. It’s too much for you. It was too much for Dad, but he didn’t want to admit it.”
“He didn’t,” his mother said. “Thankfully we’ve got enough good staff that are doing most of the work. Everyone has been great and hopefully they get to keep their jobs. I’m doing the best I can alone.”
“I know you are,” he said. “I’ve taken two weeks off of work to help get things set that you need. I’ll continue to help as best as I can, but I’ve got a job to do. I can do it remotely. I’ve been working remotely for years, as you know, so where I live isn’t a concern.”
“How are you going to do it all with Max though?” his mother asked.
“I’ve got daycare lined up. He starts tomorrow. I was hoping you could spend some time with Max today while I go get our rental set.”
“Of course,” his mother said. “I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t stay with me while you’re here. Now more so with Max. I could help you.”
His mother’s eyes shifted to her grandson still napping away. He figured those baby blue eyes would pop open soon. His son was on a schedule and seemed to stick to it, but nothing was in a routine for either of them no matter how much he was going to try to keep it that way.
He looked around the living room of his childhood home. He tried to think of the good times, telling himself he wouldn’t want his son to ever feel the way he did growing up or even returning home.
Right now he just couldn’t summon the energy to do much more than explain to his mother why he was causing her pain. Why he didn’t tell her and knew she was hurt.
“It’s better this way,” he said. “You can spend time with him, but there is too much to do. He’ll go to daycare while I’m working during the day or I can help you if you need it. Then I’ll work at night when he’s sleeping.”
He was used to living his life that way and not getting a lot of sleep. He remembered one of the many fights he’d had with his father calling him lazy. Telling him all he did was sleep. A real man got up and did what was asked of him whether he was tired or not.
“I want to argue with you, but I’ve learned once you make a decision there is no changing your mind.”
“No,” he said. A flaw of his, he was sure. Something he had in common with his father and hated to even think that thought. One he was trying to change at times.
“How are you getting along being on your own with him?” his mother asked, staring at Max.
He knew she was itching to get her hands on Max, but if he woke his son up he’d regret it. Max would be out of sorts and hard to calm down. And the last thing he wanted was his son waking up in a stranger’s arms. The kid had been through enough in his short life.
“It’s been interesting,” he said. Ren wasn’t one to admit when he was in over his head. At least to family. His friends knew and helped, but he hadn’t ever wanted his mother to know for fear his father would. He didn’t need more shit thrown in his face.
“I can only imagine,” she said.
Max started to move in his car seat. His fingers first, then his arms stretching. His legs were shifting and then his eyes popped open.
Ren made sure he got into Max’s view so his son knew he was there and safe. That he wasn’t being left in a strange place with a person he didn’t know.
“Hey there, buddy,” he said, unbuckling Max. He picked his son up and started to take his fleece jacket off knowing he was probably getting hot. “It’s okay.”
Max’s face started to scrunch up as if he was going to cry. Ren moved toward the diaper bag that he’d brought in with him and found his son’s stuffed monkey to hand over. It was one of the few toys that were with Max when he was dropped off and proved to be a major comfort for his son in the past few months.
“He looks just like you,” his mother said.
“Does he?” he asked. “I don’t really see it.”
“I’ll find some baby pictures of you. He’s the spitting image of you at that age except for the color of his hair.”
“Rachelle had light brown hair.”
Max was currently a blonde, but he wondered if it’d stay that way.
“Will I be able to hold him?” his mother asked. “Especially if you want to leave to set your place up? Where is it?”
“It’s only a mile from here,” he said. “I was lucky to find a house to rent until the end of January with the option of longer if need be.” He figured it’d give his mother time to bond with her grandson and maybe help with the loss of her husband.
It would also give him the time he needed to see if he could win back the woman he’d loved and thrown away.