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The Way Home (Chapter 6)

What about your family?" he asked carefully the next morning, as if wary of treading on unstable ground. In his experience, family was something other people had and, from what he'd seen at his foster homes, it wasn't desirable. But he wanted to know more about Anna, wanted to find out all he could about her in case some day he came home to find her gone. "Have you told them that you're having a baby, or anything about me?"

"I don't have any family," she replied as she poured skim milk over her cereal. Her manner was casual, but his interest sharpened immediately. "No family? Were you an orphan?" He had seen a lot of orphans, sad and terrified children who had lost their entire world and didn't know what to do. Maybe his situation, dire as it had been, was preferable to theirs. At least he hadn't lost someone he loved. His mother hadn't died; she had simply dumped him in the trash. Probably both she and his father were still alive somewhere, though he sincerely doubted they were together. He was more than likely the result of a short affair, at best, and more probably a one-night stand.

"Yes, but I was never in an orphanage. My mother died when I was nine, and my dad said he couldn't take proper care of me, so he sent me to live with his half sister. To tell the truth, he simply didn't want the responsibility. From what my aunt said, he'd always been irresponsible, never holding down a job for long, spending bis money in bars and chasing after other women. He died in a car accident when I was fourteen."

"What about your aunt?" he asked, remembering the "None" she had listed beside the next-of-kin information. "Do you still see her?"

"No. She died about a year before I went to work for you, but I doubt I'd ever have seen her again anyway. It wasn't a fond relationship. She and Uncle Sid had seven kids of their own. I was just an unwelcome extra mouth to feed, especially since she had never gotten along with Dad anyway. Aunt Cora looked as if she had posed for the painting 'American Gothic,' all prune-faced and disapproving, soured on life. There was never enough money to go around, and it was only natural that she provided for her own children first."

Anger swelled in him as he pictured her, a thin, lost little girl with big honey eyes, standing off to the side as he had often stood, never quite a part of a family unit. That had been the better part of his childhood, but it infuriated him that Anna had been subjected to such treatment. "What about your cousins? Don't you ever see them, or hear from them?"

"No, we were never close. We got along as well as most children who have been thrown together, but we never had much in common. They've all moved off the farm, anyway, and I don't know where they are. I suppose I could trace them if I wanted, but there doesn't seem any point in it."

Somehow he had never pictured Anna as being alone in the world, or of having a background in common with him. It shook him to realize that, in a different way, she had been just as deprived of nurturing as he had. She had never suffered the physical abuse, and perhaps that was why she was still able to reach out, to express her love. Even before he could remember, he had learned not to expect, or hope, or offer anything of himself, because that would leave him open to hurt. He was glad Anna hadn't known a life like that.

Even so, it couldn't have been easy for her to tell him that she loved him. Had she been braced for rejection? That was what he'd done, panicked and thrown her love back in her face. He had been terrified the next morning that she wouldn't be able to stand the sight of him after the way he'd run out on her. But she had taken him back, and thank God, she not only loved him, but she seemed to love his baby. Sometimes it seemed impossible.

"What about the foster family you stayed with?" she asked. "Do you ever call them, or visit?"

"No. I haven't seen them since the day after my high-school graduation, when I packed and left, but they didn't expect me to keep in touch. I told them goodbye and thanked them, and I guess that was good enough."

"What were their names?"

"Emmeline and Harold Bradley. They were good people. They tried, especially Harold, but there was no way they could turn me into their son. It was always there, in their eyes. I wasn't Kenny. Emmeline always seemed to resent it that her son had died but I was still alive. Neither of them ever touched me if they could prevent it. They took care of me, provided me with a place to stay, clothes, food, but there wasn't any affection there. They were relieved when I left."

"Aren't you curious if they're still alive, or if they've moved?"

"There's no point in it. There's nothing for me there, and they wouldn't be overjoyed to see me."

"Where did they live?"

"About eighty miles from here, in Fort Morgan."

"But that's so close! My cousins lived in Maryland, so it's at least reasonable that we haven't kept in touch."

He shrugged. "I left the state when I went to college, so it wasn't exactly convenient for me to visit. I worked two jobs to pay my tuition, and that didn't leave a lot of free time."

"But you came back to Colorado and settled in Denver."

"There's more demand for engineers in a large city."

"There are a lot of cities in this country. The point is, you're so close, but you never called them to tell them how college turned out, or that you were back in the state."

Temper edged into his voice. "No, I didn't, and I don't intend to. For God's sake, Anna, it's been fifteen years since I got out of college. They sure as hell haven't kept a candle in the window for me all this time. They knew I wouldn't be back."

She dropped the subject, but she didn't forget it. Harold and Emmeline Bradley. She committed their names to memory. Despite what Saxon thought, they had spent years raising him and were likely to be more than a little interested in what had become of him.

He left for work in silence, and returned that afternoon in the same brooding mood. She left him alone, but his silence made her quietly panic. Had her questions bothered him so much that he was considering terminating their arrangement? But he had started it by asking about her family, so he had only himself to blame. In the few days since she had told him of the baby she had become accustomed to thinking of him as more approachable, more hers, but suddenly she was very much aware of the wall that still surrounded him. She had knocked a few chinks out of it, but it was far from demolished.

Saxon hadn't liked all that talk about his foster family, but it had started him thinking. Unless he and Anna took steps to prevent it, this baby wouldn't have much of a family, either. He couldn't picture them having other children under their present circumstances, and to his surprise, he liked the idea of more children. He wanted them to be a family, not just live-in lovers who happened to have a baby.

He hadn't had pretty fantasies about his mother, but he had often wondered, with a child's bewildered pain, what it would be like to have a real family, to belong somewhere and have someone who loved him. It was a fantasy that hadn't lasted long under the merciless weight of reality, but he still remembered how he had imagined it, the feeling of security that was at the center of it and held everything together. He hadn't been able to picture parents, beyond tall shadowy figures that stood between him and danger. He never wanted his baby to have those kinds of fantasies; he wanted it to have the reality of a stable home.

Less than a week ago, just the idea of what he was now considering would have been enough to make him break out in a panicky sweat, but he had since learned that there were worse things. Losing Anna was worse. He hoped he never in his life had to live through another day and night like he'd endured then, because he didn't think his sanity could take it. In comparison, what he was thinking now was a snap.

Thinking it was one thing, actually putting it into words was another. He watched Anna with troubled eyes, though he knew it was useless trying to predict her answer. Behind her customary serenity she was deep and complicated, seeing more than he wanted her to see, understanding more than was comfortable. With so much of her thought processes hidden from him, he wasn't at all certain how she would react, or why. If she loved him there should be no hesitation, but that wasn't necessarily the case. She was capable of sacrificing her own happiness–assuming he could make her happy–for what she thought best for the baby.

It was strange what an impact the baby had had on their lives months prior to its birth, but he didn't regret the changes. It was frightening; he had the sense of living on the edge, where any false move could send him over, but at the same time the increased openness and intimacy he shared with Anna were, without a doubt, worth every minute of worry. He didn't think he could go back to the previous loneliness he had taken for granted, even embraced.

Still, it was a decision that racked him with nerves. In the end, he couldn't say the words that would be an offer of himself, a statement of his feelings and vulnerability; instead he threw them out couched as a suggestion. "I think we should get married."

There was nothing he could have said that would have astounded her more. Her legs went weak, and she sat down heavily. "Marriage!" she said with a mixture of disbelief and total surprise.

He wasn't pleased that the solution hadn't occurred to her. "Yes, marriage. It makes sense. We're already living together, and we're having a baby. Marriage seems the logical next step."

Anna shook her head, not in refusal but in a futile effort to clear her head. Somehow she had never expected to receive a marriage proposal couched as "the logical next step." She hadn't expected a marriage proposal, period, though she had wanted one very badly. But she had wanted him to propose for different reasons, because he loved her and couldn't live without her. She suspected that was the case, but she would never know for sure if he never told her.

It wasn't an easy decision, and she didn't rush into speech. His face was impassive as he waited for her answer, his green eyes darkened and watchful. Her answer meant a lot to him, she realized. He wanted her to say yes. She wanted to say yes. The question was whether she was willing to take the chance that he did love her and marry him on blind faith. A cautious woman wouldn't want to make a hasty decision that would affect not only the two of them, but their child as well. A broken marriage inevitably left its scars on all concerned.

She had taken a leap of blind faith in quitting her job to become his mistress, and she didn't regret it. The two years of loving him had been the best of her life, and she could never wish them undone. Pregnancy altered everything, she thought with a faint curving of her lips. She couldn't just think of herself now; she had to think of the baby. What was logical wasn't necessarily the best choice, even though her heart clamored for a quick acceptance.

She looked at him, her dark eyes grave. "I love you, you know," she said.

Once such a statement would have made his face go blank in a refusal to hear. Now he steadily returned her gaze. "I know." The knowledge didn't make him panic; instead he treasured it, savored it, as the most precious gift of his life.

"I want to say yes, more than anything I've ever wanted, but I'm afraid to. I know it was your idea for us to stay together, and you've been wonderful, but I'm not certain that you'll still feel the same after the baby's born. As the old saying goes, then it becomes a whole new ball game. I don't want you to feel trapped or unhappy."

He shook his head as if to forestall the answer he sensed was coming. "There's no way to predict the future. I know why you worry about the way I'll react, and to tell you the truth, I'm a little scared myself, but I'm excited, too. I want this baby. I want you. Let's get married and make it official." He smiled wryly. "The baby could have Malone for a last name. The second generation of a brand-new family."

Anna took a deep breath and denied herself what she had wanted more than anything else. "I can't give you an answer now," she whispered, and saw his face tighten. "It just doesn't feel right. I want to say yes, Saxon, I want that more than anything, but I'm not certain it would be the right thing to do."

"It is," he said roughly.

"Then if it is, it will still be the right thing a month from now, or two months from now. Too much has happened too fast–the baby.. .you. I don't want to make the wrong decision, and I think I'm operating more on my emotions now than on brainpower."

The force of his willpower shone out of his eyes, intensely green and focused. "I can't make you say yes," he said in a slow, deep voice. "But I can keep asking. I can make love to you and take care of you until you won't be able to imagine life without me."

Her lips trembled. "I can't imagine that now."

"I don't give up, Anna. When I go after something, I don't stop until I've gotten it. I want you, and I'm going to have you."

She knew exactly what he meant. When he decided something, he focused on it with a fierce tunnel vision that didn't let him rest until he had achieved his objective. It was a little daunting to think of herself as the object of that kind of determination.

He smiled then, a smile that was more than a little predatory. "You can take that to the bank, baby."

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