A Taste of... deadly Games

Chapter One

Kylie Hatfield sat back in her office chair and stretched her aching back. She felt like she was eighty instead of twenty-four. It wasn’t even six o’clock yet, but the light outside was waning as the shorter days of October took their toll on downtown Asheville. She still had an hour of official daylight, but the dimness made her yawn. She’d driven into work when the sun was just popping up over the mountains, skipped lunch, and now, it felt like she’d been huddled over her computer for a thousand years.

Such was the life of a private investigator.

Sure, she’d had her exciting moments out in the field. But the cheating lover’s attempted murder by rattlesnake, the run-in with the serial killer, and the brush with the embezzling murdering art thief notwithstanding, most of her time was spent butt-in-chair, trying to slog through a bunch of dull-as-dishwater research.

Actually, this was better than what she’d been hired for back in the spring. Filing. That was a fate worse than death. Luckily, she’d managed to add other things to her resume, but since it was a two-person office, it was still part of her job description.

She leaned forward and typed some more search terms into the keyboard. At least Greg, her boss, had finally gotten into the century by outfitting the office with two new computers. Actually, Kylie wasn’t sure that they were new, exactly. Her boss was notoriously thrifty when it came to provisioning the office the two of them shared. These particular computers ran on Windows 98 and had probably been rescued from a dumpster somewhere, but she wasn’t going to bite the hand that fed her. She was happy to have something with a screen, and not that infernal typewriter that she’d grown to detest during her first months at Starr Investigations.

After about five minutes of chugging, grinding, and buffering, the computer finally spat out the results of her search. Kylie lifted her notepad and took some notes. The little mystery she’d been hired to conquer was slowly inching its way toward a solution.

Her client, Barbara Davidson, had found out late in her fifties that she’d been adopted by using one of those at-home ancestry kits that were all the rage these days. She’d wanted Kylie to see if she could compile any data that could help her to track down her real parents.

Easy-peasy. But not exactly exciting, or even compelling.

Not exactly the kind of stuff that made Kylie love being an almost private investigator. She didn’t even have to look back at her own broken home. She’d seen enough illegitimate births and jilted lovers to make her question whether love really existed, oh, about a thousand times in the past year.

Kylie had been working as Greg’s right-hand-girl but was quickly rising in the ranks from his filing clerk to assistant private investigator. In between almost getting herself killed a couple of times, she’d handled plenty of cases that involved a lot of research, and at least five that involved tracking down parents like Barbara’s, so this was old hat. There was always a cheating, two-timing lowlife at the bottom of things like this.

Barbara’s dad likely had an affair, and she was the product of it. He’d been married, unable or unwilling to part with his wife, and the other woman was shut out and hadn’t been able to raise the baby on her own.

Kylie yawned. That was probably the thing she’d come to hate most about her job. All the cheating scumbags out there. It made her wonder if it was possible for anyone to be honestly in love with anyone else, or if lust, desire, greed, or simple boredom always got in the way. These cases were seriously a dime a dozen.

It was the things that happened rarelythe serial killers, the murderers, the bad guys who put her heart in her throat that she loved. She loved different.

Not that any of those things helped restore her tarnished faith in humanity. No, Kylie sometimes went home and understood very well why Greg, her boss, was the biggest grouch on earth. Even Kylie the Optimist had seen her outlook made slightly stormier by the job.

And different hardly ever happened, at least that was what Greg told her repeatedly, although he also told her that she appeared to be a magnet for trouble. That the murdering embezzler slash art thief of Kylie’s last different case was a one-off, he’d said. As was the serial killer she’d dealt with previously. And the snakebite couple. According to Greg, Kylie had seen more action in the past few months than he’d seen over his entire PI career.

Now, in the past few days since she’d returned to work after almost dyingagainthe most exciting thing that could even possibly qualify as different was when an old lady had come in and wanted her to find her dentures, which she’d lost somewhere in her house.

Different, yes. Not exactly something that would get her heart racing again.

She was embarrassed to admit that she’d been so bored she’d actually accepted that case. But the old lady was so distraught and looked like she needed an understanding ear, so Kylie had walked her home, taken her inside, and found the dentures two minutes later in her medicine cabinet. She hadn’t accepted any payment except a freshly baked lemon cake. Greg still wouldn’t let her live that one down.

Once, when she brought down the Spotlight Killer, a case that had gotten her national attention and her own special on Dateline, she’d thought she was on her way up.

She sighed, wondering if those last few cases were just dumb luck. After all, very little ever happened in Asheville, North Carolina, the quiet little city nestled in the Appalachians. Even Linc, her boyfriend, hadn’t been called out on a search and rescue in at least a week, and his best friend and local detective, Jacob, had remarked that the place had lost whatever pulse it’d had over the summer.

They weren’t complaining, though. Only Kylie minded. The men liked boredom, liked tooling around and going out for coffee and donuts and twiddling their thumbs, shooting the shit even as Kylie felt like a noose was tightening around her neck. Too much sitting made her antsy. Was it too much to ask for a little excitement every now and then?

As she prowled around online, running a search of birth announcements around the time Barbara Davidson was born, or any criminal activity that might have been reported around the date of her birth, she yawned even louder. Kylie understood the need to know where a person was from. She did. Sometimes, she wondered it about her own self.

Actually, more than sometimes. Especially in her line of work.

Kylie’s mother, Rhonda, was the only parent that she’d known from a very young age. And as she’d convinced herself, time and time again, all that she needed. Rhonda had been the age Kylie was now, with a new baby, when her husband simply decided not to come home. Kylie remembered her mother shedding many a tear when she was younger, and she’d always attributed those tears to her father, who was nothing but an image on a faded photograph.

The bastard had probably traded her mom in for a better model. At least that’s what Rhonda Hatfield said on the few times Adam Hatfield was brought up.

The very few times.

Rhonda Hatfield had managed quite well without him, so why ruin things by talking about the past?

But truth be told, whenever Kylie got into an investigation like this, her fingers itched. It’d be so easy to simply pop the name Adam Hatfield into the search database and see what came up, especially since another Hatfield had been recently making the news.

It seemed that anytime she saw a man with the last name of Hatfield, she automatically wondered if he was her father. And when she realized he wasn’t, she was let down.

Not just let down. Profoundly disappointed.

She was a curious person by nature, which had gotten her into more than enough trouble. But what good could come of digging up the life of a man who clearly didn’t want to know her? None. Absolutely none. So, she’d always resisted.

Until now.

The more she thought about it, the more that little itching became a full-on rash, one that she needed to scratch.

“Don’t,” she said aloud, balling her hands into fists so her fingers wouldn’t work the keyboard and type in his name. “Bad idea.”

She looked down at Vader, the giant Newfoundland mix she’d rescued from the side of the road. Vader whimpered as if to echo her sentiments. They were the only two left in the office, since Greg had gone off on “surveillance,” which he seemed to do more often on nice days like this.

Kylie often found herself talking to her dog. Of course, she often found herself talking aloud to no one in particular. Kylie was just chatty. Sometimes she couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She knew it drove a lot of people—her boyfriend especially—nuts, but she still couldn’t manage to stop herself.

Impulsive. That’s what people called her.

A fact that was so evident now as her hands shook in front of her.

She studied the screen, the search bar, waiting for her to input whatever she wished to know more about. The cursor blinked, taunting her. Go ahead. Do it. It’s not a big deal.

“Oh, yes, it is,” she muttered, clicking the X to get out of the program. She looked at Vader, who wagged his tail at the attention. “What does it matter what he’s up to? Really! He doesn’t care about me. Why should I give a rat’s ass what he’s up to these days?”

Vader gave her a hey, I never knew my dad either look in return.

“Right. Not knowing your dad doesn’t make you any less worthwhile,” she said to him, slipping her foot out of her shoe and running it through his thick fur. “You’re still my favorite little drooly morsel.”

She linked her fingers behind her head, thinking. It was true. A lot of people lived perfectly happy lives not knowing one or both of their parents. And there were people like Linc, who knew his dad, but barely got along with him.

She’d gotten along better with Jonathan Coulter the last time they’d met, but she still thought Linc’s father was a grade A douche, nothing like his yummy son. Linc still dreaded going to family dinners at his parents’, and she wasn’t much better. Knowing how rare a perfect family was, Kylie knew she had nothing to complain about.

Still, that itch was there.

Growing stronger by the minute.

She clenched her teeth together so hard, willing her fingers to be good, until she could stand it no more. She let out a loud, “GAAAAAAH!” before throwing herself over the keyboard. She needed a nap.

Just then, the bell over the door jangled. She peered up to see Linc through the veil of her hair. He looked worried. “Your day’s going that good? Wow.”

Linc Coulter, dog trainer extraordinaire. Right in the nick of time, as usual.

Still, she stiffened. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him. But he’d been acting weird around her lately, covering up his phone whenever she came into the room. She didn’t think he’d be the type to two-time her, but she wasn’t sure. After all, as her father and line of work had shown, it was all too common.

There was another possibility too. Maybe he’d been thinking about getting her a ring? They never talked about marriage, but he’d told her he wanted a family, and he was thirty, and he’d been semi-pressuring her to move in with him. Every time he showed up out of the blue, she wondered if he was going to drop to one knee and propose.

She wasn’t sure what would make her more nervous—two-timing or proposing. Because both of them were scary, scary stuff.

She sighed with relief when she saw that he held a couple of Panera bags in his hands. Not a velvet-lined case. And he didn’t have lipstick on his collar or anything, either.

So, neither. Neither was good.

His German Shepherd, Storm, obediently trailed in behind him and greeted Vader with a nonchalant sniff. Vader’s tail went wild, but he’d gotten much more controlled lately. Just a couple months ago, he’d have knocked down a brick wall at the chance to sniff another dog.

Kylie jumped out of her chair and ran for Linc, grabbing the bags and giving him a peck on the cheek. “My day’s definitely getting betteryou brought me lunch?” She looked inside the bag and pumped her fist. He knew her so well. “Yes! Bacon Turkey Bravo! To what do I owe such a surprise?”

He gave her an odd look and followed her into the office that was a converted vacuum showroom. “Can’t I just surprise you without a reason?”

I suppose you could, she thought. But I’ve been spending all my time thinking about two-timing scumbags, so I’m suspicious that you did it because you feel guilty about something.

“I guess.” She pushed her computer keyboard aside and pulled the cartons out. “That’s very nice. Thank you.”

He shrugged, but still seemed to watch her closely. “I was in town, picking up the stuff I needed at the hardware store. And you were…” He scratched at his chin. “Exactly what were you doing that got you so frustrated?”

The last time she’d mentioned the possibility of looking up her dad to Linc, he’d told her that if she wanted to, she should. She knew that’s what he’d say again, and then she’d do it. His warm, chocolate brown eyes always convinced her to take that extra step. And as much as she really wanted to . . .

She really didn’t want to, either.

It was just too scary to think of, what might come up the second she punched in his name.

She gave him a sheepish look. “Oh, nothing. Same old work woes.”

He nodded. That, he wouldn’t question. After dozens of false career starts, Kylie finally felt like working as a PI was her dream job, but it still had its problems, and Kylie wasn’t one to keep things in. She complained about the boredom almost every chance she got. He had to have seen her getting antsy for a real case—for the past few days, she’d been practically exuding frustration out of every pore and bouncing around the house like a jumping bean.

He sat down across from her and dug into his salad. “Well, relax. Something’ll come along.”

Not that you want it to, Kylie thought, putting a straw in her iced tea. If Linc had gotten his way, he’d have wrapped her in numerous layers of bubble wrap by now. He was constantly worrying about her. Of course, he had his reasons.

He’d seen enough terrible things during his time in the war and had been struggling for the past few months with PTSD. He always gave her her freedom, but not without a hell of a lot of overthinking and what ifs. Whenever he got overprotective, she always tried to remind herself that his caution was good for her. She did have a tendency to go off without thinking, again and again, and it did get her in trouble.

“I guess.”

He looked over at her computer. “What are you working on now?”

“Oh, same old, same old. An adoptee looking for her bio parents.”

“Sounds good.” That was just the type of assignment she knew he wished she’d handle all the time. Easy. Safe. Boring as hell.

“Not really.”

“I know, I know,” he said, reaching over and touching her hand. “But it’s important work.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Is it? Knowing who your parents are might bring more bad than good. There are so many cheaters and liars and scumbags on the earth. I sometimes feel like no one is honest.”

“That’s not true. I’m honest. You’re honest.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Right?”

She gave him a doubtful look.

Alarm flashed on his face. “Right?”

She waved whatever he was insinuating away. “Oh, of course. But what I mean is, there are a lot of losers out there, and when parents go out of their kids’ lives, it’s usually for a good reason. Even present parents can be more trouble than they’re worth. You’d probably rather you didn’t know your parents, considering how much trouble they cause you.”

He gave her a surprised look. “No. Yeah, my dad can be challenging. But hellis that what you think?”

She shrugged.

He studied her face and understanding dawned. “Wait. You’re thinking about your dad again, aren’t you?”

She didn’t answer.

“If it means that much to you, just look him up,” he said too breezily for her liking. God, he was so good-looking, almost super-hero gorgeous, but sometimes, he could be so dense. Sometimes she felt like he didn’t know her at all.

“Because! It’s like I said. It could be a lot more trouble than not knowing him. He obviously had problems and a life that I couldn’t be a part of. He left for a reason, and it’s nothing good. Do I want to open that can of worms?” She sighed and dropped her sandwich down on the paper. She no longer had an appetite. “He obviously made it clear that he doesn’t want to get in touch with me. I might just be opening myself up to rejection again.”

“Wellmaybe he would like to get back in your life, but he’s just worried you’ll turn him away,” he said, saying the thing that made the wall of resolve she’d carefully constructed start to crumble. “You’ll never know unless you try, right?”

Yeah. That was true. Maybe he was out there, thinking about her, wanting to open the lines of communication and apologize. Maybe he’d thought about her just as much as she’d thought about him.

Maybe he was dead. She just didn’t know.

She wrinkled her nose. “How can a man just leave a cute, adorable, bouncing baby? I was four days old, for god’s sake. His flesh and blood. What the hell is wrong with him?”

What was wrong with me?

Linc studied her. “Maybe he had a good reason.”

Kylie shot him a hard look. He was just supposed to agree with her on this, not play devil’s advocate. What kind of boyfriend was he?

“Like?”

Linc shrugged. “Can’t really think of anything, but you could find out. Track him down. Give him a call. Get his side of the story.”

She took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly, just as Linc’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and lifted it to his ear. “Hello?”

Kylie licked melted gouda off her fingers, thinking. Her mother hadn’t said anything negative about her father before, other than that he’d possibly traded her in for another model. She hadn’t said anything positive, either. From the speed with which Rhonda Hatfield changed the subject whenever Kylie had brought up her dad, she could tell her mother didn’t want to touch it with a very long pole. But why? Maybe she just needed to attack her mother and demand answers, as painful as that discussion would be.

She was so deep in thought, imagining herself cornering her poor mother and firing questions at her until the woman who’d nurtured her all these years broke down and shouted, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” that she didn’t notice Linc had hung up.

“Got a SAR case,” he said, fixing the cover onto his sandwich and standing. “Wow. First one in a week.”

Kylie pouted. Why did he get to have all the fun? “Lucky. What is it this time?”

“A kid wandered away from an elementary school playground,” he said, patting his side. Storm rose immediately, ever the faithful and ready soldier. “Shouldn’t be hard. Weather’s been good.”

Kylie swallowed. Sure, the weather was good. And most likely, the little kid had just gotten turned around, and they’d find him, shaken but unhurt. Nine times out of ten, that’s what happened. But those other times, the times when the victim was hurt, or worseKylie worried.

And not just for the child.

Linc’s PTSD issues had come to the forefront a few weeks ago, when he’d had a panic attack working on a garage collapse. He’d assured her again and again that he was fine, but she still worried that one day he’d run into a situation that undid all of the months of therapy he’d been excelling at.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” she said, her eyes drifting to the computer. Linc had been a welcome distraction. Left alone, who knew what stupid and borderline masochistic things she could be tempted to do?

He nodded and kissed her on the top of the head. “Yeah. Of course. You worry about yourself. All right?”

She nodded and watched him and Storm leave through the storefront window. He’d parked right in front of the little brick building, so her eyes lingered on him as he climbed into his big truck with the German Shepherd and pulled away. Again, she found herself grinning goofily after him.

Linc was a person of few words, so he never really said it, but she knew he loved her. And she loved him.

But that was the thing. She’d seen precisely one picture of her parents together, and in it, there was no doubting the love they shared. Her mother loved her father, once. And maybe, once upon a time, he’d loved her mother.

And he’d left.

Sometimes even people you knew well could completely let you down. She didn’t know what kind of reassurance Linc could give her, but all she knew was that she still had doubts, and she wasn’t sure if anything could ever erase them.

And they were all put there by one person. Her father.

She looked at Vader and shrugged. “I know, boy. I’m an idiot to have my father mean this much when he wasn’t around to shape my life at all. But I guess Linc’s right. If I’m ever going to get past this, I need to find him.”

 She picked up her cell phone and dialed her mother.

Chapter Two

After closing up Starr Investigations, Kylie arrived at her mother’s home in downtown Asheville a little bit after six that night. She and her mother were close. Not a day went by that they didn’t call each other up to chat, which, because both of them were expert chatters, usually lasted an hour or more. They’d planned to have dinner together tonight, as they did once a week, which gave Rhonda Hatfield the opportunity to fawn over Kylie’s boyfriend and hint about grandchildren.

Rhonda clearly adored Linc, and sometimes, Kylie thought the adoration was so fanatical that she may have liked him more than her own daughter. There was no telling what tidbit of Kylie’s past Rhonda might pull out to embarrass her only child. Last time, it was a video of her camp talent show, where she’d been all of twelve and had deluded herself into thinking she was destined to be the next American Idol. As much as Kylie loved her mom, she’d shown up every single time with a clenched jaw, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Parents. They could sometimes be so insane.

And she wanted to know her father…why, again?

As much as she loved being with Linc, she was glad that the search and rescue he’d been called out on was running late. Linc had texted her to tell her that they hadn’t been able to locate the boy, a third grader. He and the other rescuers were preparing for a long night.

Great. That meant her mother would have to save the videos of her dancing naked in the sprinkler for another day.

She parallel parked outside Rhonda’s house, clipped a leash onto Vader’s collar, and led him up the stairs. She opened the door and brought Vader in.

Bringing Vader into her mother’s house had only been a recent thing. Her mother hated animals, dogs especially. But it’d been so rainy lately that Rhonda had let Kylie bring Vader into the mudroom, where he could have water and enjoy the dry.

“Mom!” she called, letting Vader into the mudroom and filling a Tupperware container of water for him. She scratched his ears and closed the door behind her as she heard her mother’s footsteps on the stairs.

When her mother came into view, she searched over her daughter’s shoulder, as if she’d forgotten something, then pouted. “No Linc?”

Kylie shook her head. “He had a rescue.”

“Oh no!” Rhonda was visibly stricken. “I hope whoever is missing is found safe, and I made Linc his favorite. Lasagna.”

Kylie rolled her eyes. Rhonda Hatfield held the “way to the heart was through the stomach” mentality. “Sorry. You’re stuck with just me.”

Rhonda linked her arm in her daughter’s and dragged her into the kitchen. The wine bottle was waiting on the center island, already open. She poured a glass for her daughter, and an even bigger one for herself.

“Don’t be silly. I’m never stuck with you, my only child and my biggest accomplishment. Besides, this’ll give us some time for one-on-one girl chat.”

Kylie took a sip of her wine, her fingers shaking a little. This was destined to be more than just “girl chat.” She’d spent the whole afternoon gathering up the courage to broach the subject. Now, she was ready.

Or…as ready as she was going to get.

She took a deep breath and turned to the fridge, where she opened the freezer and pulled out the ice cube her mother always insisted on putting in her wine to mellow it out. After plopping it into her glass, she slipped from the kitchen and went to the cabinet where all the books of photos were held.

Most of them were of Kylie, of course, but one day, when she’d been about ten years old, she’d been looking through her mother’s family Bible and found the only picture of her father she’d ever seen. Her fingers trembled as she opened the cabinet’s door and pulled the Bible out again. The picture was still hidden between the pages.

It had been taken in a hospital room on the day she was born. She was just a tiny burrito in her mother’s arms, and her mother was beaming with happiness. Next to her was a man in profile, smiling broadly under a dark moustache, his mullet unable to detract from his handsome face. They appeared to be the very definition of a happy family.

And so very much in love. Kylie knew this because the parents weren’t looking at the camera, or at the baby. They were looking at each other.

The exposure was grainy, and a bit out of focus. But one thing that she read loud and clear? The love. The warmth was practically radiating from the photo paper. If Kylie knew nothing about that couple, she would’ve thought they were meant to be together forever.

But he’d left…what? Less than a week after that picture was taken.

What had happened to make things change? Why had he decided to trade her mother in for a different model? That was her mother’s belief, at least…but Kylie knew there was always two sides to every story.

She was only getting half of it. And she was a private investigator. Almost, anyway. In her line of work, half a story was as good as nothing.

Kylie smoothed her finger down the photo. It was faded and a bit creased, not from age but from Kylie handling it often after that initial discovery. She couldn’t count how many times she’d taken that photo out and stared at it, thinking to herself, Who are you, Adam Hatfield? How could you be so happy with my mother in this picture, and then leave her only a few days later?

Those and a thousand other questions had simmered in her head for so long, now it felt like a pot about to overflow.

With a sigh, Kylie placed the picture back on the Bible page and was about to put it away, when she stopped and picked it up again. It was time to take it out of the dark.

Tucking it in the pocket of her sweater, she put the Bible away and closed the door before wandering back to the kitchen. Rhonda Hatfield smiled at her, but the look was edged in concern. “How was your day? You look tired.”

“Oh, it was okay,” Kylie said innocently, leaning against the center island. Did she look tired? No, she probably just looked bored. The inactivity had the same effect on her as a sleepless night. Not to mention, the talk about her father had her rattled. “Same old, same old.”

“Don’t tell me you’re getting restless with that job too,” Rhonda said, fanning her face. Kylie might have been cut from the same cloth as her mother, but Rhonda was much less daring. Kylie had to think she must have gotten her impulsive, risk-taking side from her father, but she never knew that for sure. “You always said how much you liked it. I thought it was your dream job.”

“It is, it is. It’s fine. I’m not thinking of quitting. It’s just a little slow right now.”

“Slow? You should appreciate slow. That time that serial killer almost killed you still gives me nightmares.” She fanned her face even more vigorously.

Kylie gritted her teeth. Like she could forget convalescing in her mother’s house for weeks after that injury. She had wanted to keep the most dangerous cases from her mom, but she’d needed to stay with Rhonda while she recuperated from a bullet to the shoulder, and when news of her thwarting the serial killer ended up in the daily paper, there was no shielding Rhonda Hatfield from all the gory details. No matter how hard Kylie tried to make it seem like all she did was file papers all day, she’d clearly never live her near-death experience down.

“Don’t worry, Mom. It’s fine.”

“Or what about that lunatic who ran you off the road?”

Kylie winced. She’d mostly secreted the worst parts of that case from her mother, like the fact that that lunatic who trashed her car had nearly almost killed her too. But she’d had to explain some of it when she suddenly showed up with a new Jeep Wrangler. “I know, I know.”

“Well, is everything all right with Linc? You two didn’t have a fight, did you?”

Kylie shook her head. “No. He’s perfect.”

Rhonda Hatfield leaned forward, her eyes sparkling. She took her daughter’s hand. “So…tell me…” Kylie stiffened, anticipating her next words. “Do you think he’s going to pop the question?”

Kylie gulped down half the wine. “Mom. I don’t know. We never talk about—”

“Never talk about it? You’ve been practically living together. You don’t want to wait too long, until you’re an old maid.”

Kylie drained her glass. “Mom, we don’t live together. I just…stay there a lot. And I’m not even twenty-five yet. I’m not old.”

“Yes, but he’s older than you. He has to be thirty, at least. Doesn’t he want kids?”

“I have no idea. Besides, this isn’t about him wanting kids. It’s about you wanting grandkids, right? Admit it.”

Rhonda gave her an innocent bat of the eyelashes before conceding with a nod. “Okay, maybe. I want to be able to enjoy my precious grandbabies before I become an old, crippled lady.”

Kylie poured herself another glass and looked her mom straight in the eye. “Mom. You’re not even fifty.”

She put her hands on her hips. “Stop saying the word ‘fifty.’ I only just turned forty-seven, thank you very much. And I want to be the cool, hip grandma. And to be a cool, hip grandma, you have to have grandkids when you’re young. So, help me out a little.”

Vader scratched at the mudroom door. “Vader can be your grandchild. He’s willing to have a cool, hip person taking him on walks.”

Rhonda sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know what your reluctance is. Linc is the total package. I’ve been saying that since you first met him. He’s kind, sweet, treats you like gold…not to mention he’s a hunk.” Kylie gritted her teeth again at that word. “Most women would kill for that.”

Kylie took a deep breath. “Maybe I’m afraid of commitment, like my dad.”

Her mother’s eyes flashed to hers. It was the first time Kylie had mentioned the D-word in years. “Your father wasn’t afraid of commitment,” Rhonda said, turning away to check the lasagna in the oven. She dug her hands into oven mitts, opened the oven door, and stooped to pull out the pan. “In fact, he embraced it. At least at first. He was ready to take the plunge even before I was ready. He just decided, I guess, after a little while, that he wanted something different.”

That was the most Rhonda Hatfield had ever said about her husband. Kylie pounced on it. “You’ve said that before. So, he didn’t beat around the bush when it came to proposing to you?”

Rhonda poked the center of the steaming pan of lasagna with a fork. “I think it’s done.”

She was purposely evading the question. Kylie sighed. “He did propose to you, right? He didn’t just say, ‘Yo! Marriage!’ and you two got hitched?” She used what was probably an awful Brooklyn accent, but she couldn’t help it. She knew that she’d been born at St. Mary’s in Brooklyn. It said so on her birth certificate, so she’d always known that her father must’ve been a New Yorker. In her mind, he sounded a lot like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. Even kind of resembled him, with his dark, boyish features.

Rhonda Hatfield looked like she’d sucked on a lemon as she lifted the pan. “Let’s eat. Bring the wine.” She carried the dinner out to the dining room table and set it down on a trivet. Then she shrugged her hand out of a mitt, grabbed the wine from her daughter, and drained her glass. “Why do you want to know all this now?”

Kylie sat beside her mother’s place, who’d always positioned herself at the head of the table. “Why have you always avoided it?”

“Because,” her mother said, sitting down in her chair and lacing her fingers in front of her, “I don’t dwell on things that don’t matter. And I told myself twenty-four years ago that your father doesn’t matter.”

Kylie threw up her hands. “But don’t you understand? It does matter to me! I’m the one who has his blood in my veins, and I barely even know what he looks like. The only picture I’ve ever seen of him is the one you keep hidden in the Bible, and that one’s so old you can’t even see it.”

Rhonda leaned over and patted her daughter’s hand. “You are much more than your father. A much warmer, more caring, more compassionate person.”

“Great. Fantastic. I inherited those things from you. But what about the things I inherited from him? Shouldn’t I know what those are?”

Rhonda wrinkled her nose, like she’d smelled something bad. “Believe me. You inherited nothing from him.”

“I had to have inherited some things. Like…I don’t know. I’m impulsive, and you never are. Maybe that’s him?”

Rhonda sighed. “I—”

Kylie barreled on. “I mean, he walked out on you, right? Kind of impulsively, without giving you any indication that anything was wrong? So…” She lifted her eyebrows, waiting for her mother to acknowledge the conversation.

But she didn’t. She looked down at her lap, as if she’d fallen asleep at the table.

After a full ten seconds, she pressed her lips together, then reached over with the spatula and started to plate their dinner.

That went well, Kylie thought, assuming her mother would just do what she always did whenever Kylie got up the courage to ask about her dad—change the subject.

It was only after a full two minutes, and they each had a square of lasagna and her mother had picked up her fork, that Rhonda finally spoke again. “I was only trying to protect you. I didn’t see what good could come of you knowing him. He didn’t just desert me, you know. You were part of the equation too. He left both of us.”

Kylie swallowed. It took a special kind of jerk to walk out on a baby when she was less than a week old. “I know. But did he give you a good reason, at least?”

“Oh, he gave me a reason. Not a good one.”

The lasagna was too hot to eat, but Kylie didn’t have much of an appetite anymore. She sucked in a breath and said, “Linc wants me to officially move in with him.”

Her mother’s eyes flickered to her, and a smile crept up her cheeks. “And…?”

“And…” Kylie shrugged. “I don’t know what to do. With this big dad question mark hanging over my head, how am I supposed to give myself to someone when I don’t even truly know myself yet?”

Rhonda’s expression was filled with compassion. “Do you love him?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

Her mother didn’t get it. “The problem is that I haven’t even told him that I love him, and he hasn’t said those three little words either.” When Rhonda opened her mouth again, Kylie held up a hand. “I believe he loves me too.”

“I don’t see the problem,” Rhonda said gently.

Kylie pulled the picture from her pocket, watching her mom’s eyes widen in surprise. “This. This is the problem. See the way Dad was looking at you? It’s totally clear that he loved you, too, once upon a time. But what if I, like him, decide in a few years that Linc isn’t everything I want? I don’t want to put him through that. I don’t want to be that person. But maybe I am, maybe it’s in my genes, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Maybe I need to turn Linc away before I hurt him like Dad hurt you and me.”

Rhonda looked at her daughter for a long time. Kylie saw the tears shining in her mother’s eyes. She was about to apologize and change the subject herself when Rhonda leaned in and said, “I raised a good daughter. I have to believe that, even if the impulse to run away was in her blood, she’d know better than to do it in a way that was so horrible.”

Kylie smiled sadly. “I’m glad you think that about me, but I don’t know what to think about myself. I’m scared. I know I have trouble controlling my impulsive behavior. And I just want to make sure, absolutely sure, that what I’m wanting now will be forever.”

Rhonda’s eyes traveled over the table. Set with a white linen tablecloth, it could easily hold another ten people, but Kylie couldn’t remember a time they’d ever had more than two, or more recently, three, when Linc joined them. For so long, it had been just her and her mother, eating together, here. She’d often wondered, if her father were around, where at the table he would have sat.

With a long sigh, Rhonda pushed her lasagna away and laced her hands together in front of her. “What would you like to know about him?”

Kylie was shocked at the invitation. She’d waited decades to hear it. “Well…everything. Where did you meet?”

Taking a sip of her water, Rhonda said nothing until the glass was precisely centered on its precise spot on the placemat. “Well, you know that after I graduated from high school, I went up to New York, hoping to get a bite of the big apple.”

Kylie raised an eyebrow. “Yes. You lived in an apartment with a bunch of girls from your graduating class, right? You went to college there. And that’s where Dad grew up, right?”

“Right. In Brooklyn. It was my senior year, just a couple months before I graduated with a Bachelor of Business degree. I was also waitressing at a twenty-four-hour diner, and that was where I met your father for the first time. He was one of my best customers. He was a garbage truck driver for Cityside Garbage Services, and the diner was on the way home from his route. He used to come in and flirt with me. I can still remember how bad he smelled.”

Kylie leaned forward, hanging on every word. She raised an eyebrow. “Is that what made you fall in love with him?”

Rhonda laughed. “The smell? No. He was a charmer. Not only was he handsome, but he had this cute little Brooklyn accent. He made fun of me, called me a Southern belle. My girlfriends at the diner all thought he was a player, but he’d always give me a massive tip. Like twenty dollars on a five-dollar bill.”

Kylie grinned. “So, he tipped his way into your heart.”

Rhonda grinned back. “That makes me sound like a hooker, but no. What got my attention was that he clearly couldn’t afford to be that generous, but he was with me. So, we flirted a lot, and one day, when I got off from work, he was waiting for me with a single red rose. When we started dating, he treated me like a princess. Then…”

Kylie could barely breathe. “Then what?”

Rhonda looked at her daughter with the same level of love she’d smothered her with all these years. “Then you came along. The minute he found out I was pregnant with you, he got down on his knee and proposed.” Rhonda’s eyes misted, and she lifted a napkin to just under her nose, blinking furiously. When she was composed, she met Kylie’s gaze again. “So, you see, he wasn’t afraid of commitment at all.”

Kylie’s eyes widened. Now that the door had been opened, she wanted more. “And then you got married?”

“Yes. Small ceremony. City Hall. We lived in his place above Able Body Hardware Store, which was just a couple blocks away from the diner. It wasn’t fancy, but I don’t think I’d ever been so happy,” she said, getting a faraway look in her eyes as she stared at nothing in particular. “I think he was happy too.”

The lasagna was now cool enough to eat, but Kylie couldn’t even think about food. She fisted the napkin in her lap. If they’d been so happy, then what happened?

“And?”

Rhonda Hatfield’s brow knitted, and a pained look flitted across her expression. “And…then things changed. Actually, he changed. At the time, I was too hurt to question it. But I still haven’t the foggiest idea why, other than that it must’ve had to do with his new job.”

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Deadly Games by Mary Stone and Bella Cross

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