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The Way Home (Chapter 9)

Oaxon's face tightened when she told him Harold was dead, and the brilliant color of his eyes dimmed. She had expected him to refuse to listen to anything about the Bradleys, but he hadn't. If he was curious, though, he was hiding it well, because he hadn't asked any questions, either. The news of Harold's death jolted him into showing interest, though reluctantly. "Emmeline is still living in the same old house by herself?"

She told him the address, and he nodded. "It's the same house."

"She seems to be in good health," Anna said. "She cried when I told her I knew you." She took a deep breath. "You should go see her."

"No," he said shortly, dismissing the idea with a frown.

"Why not?"

She could feel him withdrawing, see his face closing up. She reached out and took his hand, remembering what Emmeline had said about letting him pull away when they should have pulled him closer. "I won't let you shut me out," she said. "I love you, and we're in this together."

His eyes were unreadable, but she had his attention. "If I had a problem, would you want to help me, or would you leave me to deal with it on my own?" she pressed.

There was a flicker of expression, gone too fast for her to decipher. "I'd take care of it for you," he said, and his hand tightened on hers. "But I don't have a problem."

"Well, I think you do."

"And you're determined to help me with it whether I think it exists or not, is that it?"

"That's it. That's the way relationships work. People butt in on other people's business because they care."

Once he would have thought it was an intolerable encroachment on his privacy, but though her determination was irritating him, at the same time it made him feel oddly secure. She was right; this was the way relationships worked. He'd seen it, though this was the first time he'd experienced it. Somehow their "arrangement" had become a "relationship," full of complications, demands and obligations, but he wouldn't have chosen to go back. For the first time in his life he felt accepted as he really was; Anna knew all there was to know about him, all the hideous details of his birth and childhood. She knew the worst, yet she hadn't left.

On a sudden impulse he lifted her astride his lap so he could look full into her face while they talked. It was an intensely personal position for talking, both physically and mentally, but it felt right. "It wasn't a good time of my life," he said in an effort to explain. "I don't want to remember it, or revisit it."

"The way you remember it is distorted by everything that had gone before. You think of them as cold and resentful of you because you weren't their son, but that isn't at all the way they felt." "Anna," he said patiently, "I was there." She framed his face with her hands. "You were a frightened boy. Don't you think it's possible you were so used to rejection that you expected it, so that's what you saw?"

"So you're an amateur psychiatrist now?" "Reasoning doesn't require a degree." She leaned forward and stole a quick kiss. "She talked for hours, telling me all about you."

"And now you think you're an expert."

"I am an expert on you," she snapped. "I've studied you for years, from the minute I went to work for you."

"You're pretty when you're mad," he said, abruptly enjoying this conversation. He realized with surprise that he was teasing her, and that it was fun. He could make her angry, but she would still love him anyway. Commitment had its advantages.

"Then I'm about to get a lot prettier," she warned.

"I can handle it."

"You think so, big guy?"

"Yes, ma'am." He cupped his hands on her hips and moved her suggestively. "I'm pretty sure I can."

For a moment her eyelids drooped heavily in response; then she opened her eyes wide and glared at him. "Don't try to distract me."

"I wasn't trying."

No, he was accomplishing, without effort. She was far from finished with her efforts to convince him, though, so she started to get up. His hands tightened on her hips and kept her in place. "Stay right where you are," he ordered.

"We can't talk in this position. You'll get your mind on sex, and then where will we be?"

"Probably right here on this couch. Not for the first time, either."

"Saxon, would you please be serious about this?" she wailed, then stopped in astonishment at what she had just said. She couldn't believe she had just had to plead with him to be serious. He was the most sober of men, seldom laughing or even smiling. She had probably seen him smile more in the past week or so than in the rest of the three years she had known him.

"I am serious," he said. "About this position, and about Emmeline. I don't want to go back. I don't want to remember."

"She loves you. She called you 'her boy,' and she said that our baby would be her grandchild."

He frowned a little, his attention caught. "She said that?"

"You should talk to her. Your memory is onesided. They understood that you were wary of adults getting close to you, after the abuse you'd received, and that's why they didn't try to touch you. They thought they were making it easier on you."

A stark look came into his eyes as memories surfaced.

"Did you want them to hug you?" she asked. "Would you have let them?"

"No," he said slowly. "I couldn't have stood it. Even when I started having sex, in college, I didn't want the girl to put her arms around me. It wasn't until–" He broke off, his eyes unfocused. It wasn't until Anna that he had wanted the feel of arms around him, that he had wanted her to hold him close. With all the other women, he had held their

109 hands above their heads, or he had been up on his knees out of their reach. But that had been sex; with Anna, from the very beginning, it had been making love, only it had taken him two long years to realize it.

He would never have allowed Emmeline or Harold to hug him, and they had .known it.

Had his perceptions, and therefore his memories, been so distorted by his previous experiences? If what he had seen had been reflections in the carnival mirror of his mind, then nothing was as it had seemed. The beatings and general abuse he had suffered at the other foster homes had trained him to expect rejection, and he had been too young to be analytical.

"Can you really get on with your life unless you know for sure?" she asked, leaning closer to him. Those honey-dark eyes were pools he could drown in, and suddenly he pulled her tight against his chest.

"I'm trying to get on with my life," he muttered against her hair. "I'm trying to build a life, with you. Let the past go. God knows I've spent enough years trying to do that, and now that it's working, why dig it up again?"

"Because you can't let go of it! You can't forget your past. It's part of what made you the man you are. And Emmeline loves you. This isn't all for your sake. Part of it is for hers. She's alone in the world now. She didn't whine about it, or complain because you'd been gone for nearly twenty years and had never been back to see her. She just wanted to know if you were all right, and she was so proud to hear how well you've done."

Saxon closed his eyes, fighting to keep the images from forming in his mind, but it was a useless battle. Emmeline had always been the stronger personality; Harold had been softer, gentler. He could still see her face, strong-boned, plain, as spare as a desert landscape. Never malevolent, but stern and upright. Her standards of cleanliness had been of the highest; for the first time in his life, he had always had good, clean clothes, clothes he hadn't been ashamed to go to school in.

He didn't want to think that she had spent twenty years wondering about him, worrying. No one had ever worried about him before, so the possibility simply hadn't occurred to him. All he had thought about was making a clean break with his past, making something of himself and never looking back.

Anna thought you had to look back, to see where you had been, as if the landscape changed once you had passed it. And maybe it did. Maybe it would look different now.

From habit he thrust emotion away from him, and the logic of the thing was suddenly clear to him. He didn't want to go back. He wanted Anna to marry him. Anna wanted him to go back. The three ideas fell into place, and all at once he knew what he would do.

"I'll go back," he said softly, and her head jerked up, her doe-eyes big and soft and questioning. "On one condition."

They faced each other in silence for a moment. He remembered the beginning of their relationship, when she had said she would be his mistress on one condition, and he had refused it, forcing her to take him on his terms. She was remembering, too, and he wondered if she would refuse on principle. No, not Anna. She was infinitely forgiving, and wise enough to know that the one instance had nothing to do with the other. He also accepted that he wouldn't always win, but that was okay, as long as Anna was the victor. As long as she won, he won, too.

"So let's hear it," she said, though she already knew. "What's the condition?"

"That you agree to marry me."

"You'd reduce our marriage to a condition that has to be met?"

"I'll do whatever it takes, use whatever argument I have to. I can't lose you, Anna. You know that."

"You aren't losing me."

"I want it signed and sealed, on record in the county courthouse. I want you to be my wife, and I want to be your husband. I want to be a father to our kids." He gave her a crooked smile. "This is kind of like a way for me to make up for my own lousy childhood, to give my kids something better and have a real childhood through them."

Of all the things he could have said, that one got to her fast and hard. She hid her face against his neck so he wouldn't see the tears welling up in her eyes and swallowed several times so she would be able to speak normally. "All right," she said. "You have yourself a wife."

They couldn't go to Fort Morgan immediately, because of his business commitments. Looking at the calendar, Anna smiled and made plans for them to go the following Sunday, and called Emmeline to let her know. It wasn't in Emmeline's character for her to bubble over with enthusiasm, but Anna could hear the pure joy in her voice.

The day finally came. As they made the drive, Saxon could feel himself tensing. He had been in foster homes all over the state, but he had lived in Fort Morgan the longest, so he had more memories of it. He could picture every room in that old house, every piece of furniture, every photograph and book. He could see Emmeline in the kitchen, dark hair pulled tightly back in a no-nonsense bun, a spotless apron protecting her plain housedress, while mouthwatering smells from the stove filled the entire house. He remembered that she had made an apple pie that was almost sinful, rich with butter and cinnamon. He would have gorged himself on that pie if he hadn't always been wary of anything he liked being taken away, so he had always restricted himself to one slice and forced himself not to show any enthusiasm. He remembered that Emmeline had baked a lot of apple pies.

He drove to the house without any difficulty, its location permanently etched in his mind. When he parked at the curb, his chest tightened until he felt almost suffocated. It was like being caught in a time warp, stepping back almost twenty years and finding nothing had changed. There were changes, of course; the porch roof was sagging a little, and the cars parked in the street were twenty years newer. But the house was still white, and the undecorated lawn was still as neat as a hatbox. And Emmeline, stepping out on the porch, was still tall and thin, and her gaunt face was still set in naturally stern lines.

He opened the car door and got out. Without waiting for him to come around, Anna had climbed out on her side, but she made no move to walk forward and join him.

Suddenly he couldn't move. Not another step. With only the small expanse of lawn separating them, he looked at the woman he hadn't seen in two decades. She was the only mother he'd ever known. His chest hurt, and he could barely breathe. He hadn't known it would be like this, that he would suddenly feel like that terrified twelve-year boy again, brought here for the first time, hoping it would be better than the others, expecting more of the same abuse. Emmeline had come out on the porch then, too, and he had looked up at that stern face and felt only the old rejection and fear. He had wanted acceptance, wanted it so much that his heart had been pounding in his chest and he had been afraid he would disgrace himself by wetting his pants, but he hadn't let himself show it, because not having it at all was easier than facing another rejection. So he had closed himself off, protecting himself in the only way he knew.

Emmeline moved toward the steps. She wasn't wearing an apron; she had dressed up in one of her Sunday dresses, but she was wiping her hands on the skirt out of habit. She stopped and stared at the tall, powerful man who was still standing at the curb. It was Saxon, without a doubt. He had turned into a breathtaking man, but she had always known he would, with that olive-toned skin, black hair and eyes like the clearest emeralds. She could see his eyes now, and the expression in them was the same as it had been twenty-five years ago when the caseworker had brought him to them, scared and desperate, and needing to be loved so much it had wrung her heart. He wouldn't come any closer, she knew. He wouldn't have back then, either, except for the caseworker's grip on his arm. Emmeline had remained on the porch rather than frighten him by rushing at him. And maybe it had been a mistake, waiting for him to be brought to her. Saxon needed for people to reach out to him, because he didn't know how to make the first move.

Slowly her face relaxed into a smile. Then Em-meline, that stern, reserved woman, walked down the steps to meet her son, her mouth trembling and tears running down her cheeks, her arms outstretched. And she never stopped smiling.

Something broke inside him with an audible snap, and he broke, too. He hadn't cried since he'd been an infant, but Emmeline was the only anchor he had ever had in his life, until he'd met Anna. With two long strides he met her in the middle of the sidewalk, caught her in his arms, and Saxon Malone cried. Emmeline put her arms around him and hugged him as tight as she could, as if she would never let go, and she kept saying, "My boy! My boy!" In the middle of his tears he reached out to Anna, and she flew around the car and into his arms. He held them both tight in his embrace and rocked them together, the two women he loved.

It was the twelfth of May. Mother's Day.

Epilogue

Anna woke slowly from what seemed like the deepest sleep she'd ever had and opened her eyes. The first sight she saw kept her from moving for a long, long time, as she reveled in the piercing sweetness of it. Saxon was sitting beside her hospital bed, just as he had been beside her all during labor and delivery. She had seen his face taut with worry and torment over her pain, filled with jubilation when she finally gave birth, his green eyes brilliant with tears as he stared wordlessly at his tiny, squalling offspring.

He held the sleeping baby in his arms now, all his attention focused on the little creature. With infinite care he examined the tiny, perfect hands and minuscule fingernails, almost holding his breath as the little fingers folded over his big one in a surprisingly tight reflexive grip, even in sleep. He traced a finger over the almost invisible eyebrows, down the downy soft cheek, to the pink bud of a mouth. Their son fit almost perfectly in his big hands, though he had weighed in at a respectable seven pounds.

She eased around onto her side, smiling at Saxon when he snapped his attention to her. "Isn't he gorgeous?" she whispered.

"He's the most perfect thing I've ever seen." Awe was in his tone. "Emmeline has gone down to the cafeteria to get something to eat. I practically had to fight her to get him away from her."

"Well, he is her only grandchild. For now."

He looked incredulous, remembering her labor, but then he looked at the baby in his arms and understood how she could consider the result as being well worth the effort. Then he smiled at his wife, a slow smile that melted her bones. "As long as the next one is a girl."

"We'll try our best."

"We still haven't decided on a name for him," he said.

"You can pick out his first name. I've already decided on his middle name."

"What is it?"

"Saxon, of course," she said. "The second Saxon Malone. We're starting a new family tradition, remember?"

He reached out and took her hand, then eased himself onto the side of her bed, and together they admired their son.

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