“Sol isn’t going to bother you … or the baby … and he better not try to get in our way at all,” Dino said in a dead serious voice.
“How can you know that for sure?” I asked. “He just might …”
I didn’t get to finish. “I know because AJ fixed it.”
You know those times when you hear something and your head just kind of fills up with air? It’s like you’re brain gets stuck in neutral and then wham, the balloon pops and you’ve got so many questions whirling around in there you don’t know which one to ask first. I picked the one that seemed to make the most sense at that point. “What does AJ have to do with any of this?”
I could see that he was having a hard time answering like I’d asked the wrong question or a question with too much answer to it so I switched tactics. “OK, so if you can’t answer my questions … uh … why don’t you start at the beginning and explain it in the order you see it in.”
He blew air out through his lips, ran a hand through his hair, and in general fidgeted like a man that was not entirely sure the outcome of something was going to be to his liking. “Riss, I told you from the beginning what … what my intentions were.”
He looked at me willing me to understand but all I could say was, “Uh huh.”
“And you … you know I’m a proactive kind of man.”
Another pleading look and I gave him another, “Uh huh.”
“I also promised I’d look after you and the baby regardless of your ultimate decision.”
This time my “Uh huh” carried with it a tinge of suspicion.
“And you know that I’ve had a spot of trouble with a parent … not … er … being around to fulfill their responsibilities.”
This time my “Uh huh” had more than just a tinge of suspicion.
“AJ … he’s … he’s a lawyer and …”
“Dino Pappas, what did you do and when did you do it?” I asked in a sharp voice.
“Now Riss …”
“Don’t you now Riss me. If this involves my baby don’t you think I should have been in on it? And what the bloody blue blazes is ‘this’ anyway? I’m not hearing too much explanation, only rationalization.”
He knew from experience when I started using big words I was some upset so he got down to business. “That’s right, that baby is yours … that bast …” at my warning look he said, “… er … Sol … Sol abandoned you. Not only did he abandon you he completely threw you over.”
Not enjoying having it rubbed in my face I said, “I am well aware of the facts of the case thank you very much.”
“Well maybe you were aware of them and maybe you weren’t. Seems from what I found out when Sol went to town he got his head turned completely around and had him a pretty good with the ladies and everything else too; if he wasn’t on duty he was partying. The crowd of young people that he had access to through your uncle … let’s just say a lot of them have very little character, even less sense, and the way they do things wouldn’t fly around here. They certainly aren’t anything that you would be used to dealing with and Sol had picked up their habits.”
Not wanting to hear any more I said, “So what you’re saying is that I got played.”
Trying to be kind but brutally honest at the same time he said, “In a nutshell … yes. Or … or maybe Sol believed the BS he was spewing for a while, convinced himself to believe it, I just don’t know. Either way when he returned to finish his tour he went right back to where he left off.”
“And he even lied to … to his family? Did they know? Wait … did Harry …”
“No, not as far as I have been able to tell. And even if he suspected, Harry decided which side he was on and didn’t care who knew it or what the consequences were.” I relaxed a bit.
Dino started playing with my curls which seemed to fascinate him for some reason. “I don’t want to break your heart but you need to know the truth.”
I shook my head feeling the tug as he held on to one particularly misbehaving curl. “Sol lost the ability to break my heart a long time ago. But bringing it all back up … and now learning this … it just makes me feel like a bigger fool.”
“You aren’t a fool. You were young and naïve and in love.”
I snorted, “I thought I was in love. But to be honest I didn’t have any idea what that meant.”
“Do you now?” he asked quietly.
I sighed, “A heap more than I did then.”
He pulled me back against him and I let it happen. “Then just hear me out.” At my nod he continued. “I lied when I said I hadn’t heard from Tammy since she walked out the door.” I stiffened up but he wouldn’t let me pull away. “Right after she left she sent some lawyer after me trying to take half the farm and get a monthly income. When I told her to … uh … pound sand she swore up and down she was going to take Kerry and I’d never see him again … and get the farm and an income. In her words she was going to destroy me for making her life a misery. I went straight to AJ.”
I asked, “Because he’s a lawyer?”
“No. Because he is AJ; because of who … and what … he is. He’s a lawyer because he likes the work, but a law isn’t his only … er … profession. He can be ruthless, heartless, and vindictively nasty … but only when necessary … and do it with a clear conscience. And he is very, very good at being AJ.” He stopped and took a breath before saying, “At the time I could have cared less what happened to Tammy but no one was going to take my son. She’d already done enough damage to him … and me. At one point … at one point she even made me wonder if he was mine.” He shook his head. “Don’t ever tell him that. You and Alec and AJ are the only three people on this planet that know about it … and Tammy, wherever she is.”
“I knew she was … but this … I …”
“I don’t expect you to understand Tammy. I don’t think Tammy understands Tammy anymore. She took off down a road and she lost herself along the way. I feel bad for the girl she was when we got married … but not for the woman she turned into. But because of what she’d already done I was not going to let her take Kerry; I was prepared to skip the country with him if I had to.
“In a war?”
“In a war. I was just that determined. But then AJ said he could fix it.”
I asked, my suspicion returning, “Fix it how?”
“I told you AJ can be ruthless … and vindictive. Tammy had decided to spite the family and to AJ that is a mortal sin. Somehow he found out things about Tammy … pictures, things from the past that not even I knew about, names that I never wanted to know … and he had her declared unfit. By the time he was through with her he nearly had her committed to the state hospital on the basis of being a danger to herself and others.”
I gasped, “Good Heavens …”
“Yeah, but it was done and I haven’t seen her since we signed the papers in front of the judge. She was scared but not too scared that if looks could kill I’d have been at her feet in a bloody ruin.”
After a moment of silence I asked, “And what does this have to do … have to do with me not having to worry about Sol taking the baby?”
His arm around me tightened a bit then loosened like he had forced himself to not squeeze too hard. “I’ve wanted you almost from the beginning Riss. God help me I don’t know why but I was determined if there was a way, that for once I was going to get what I wanted. Then I got to know you and the wanting only got worse. You make me laugh, Kerry can be a little boy now without being some dervish that everyone is afraid of crossing, you’ve turned my grandparents’ house into my home … a home that I want you to share. And I’m interested in seeing what that little bundle you’re carrying is going to turn into with you for a Momma.”
I started to say something but didn’t know what. My mouth just kinda hung open until he put a finger under my chin and gently closed it. “But there in the beginning Sol kept getting in my way.”
“He wasn’t around. I wasn’t seeing him secret,” I cried worried that ruthless cousin AJ had said something that wasn’t true.
“No and I never thought you would. Trusting you was easy … it was trusting Sol to leave us alone that was impossible for me to do. I saw how you would tense up if someone accidently mentioned him or asked if you’d heard from anyone other than Harry. Harry said you didn’t want to have anything to do with his mother and sister either.”
“I … I haven’t made up my mind about that.” When he was silent I looked back at him. “What?”
“I thought if they were out of your life you wouldn’t … I saw how you worried at it even though you’ve never said anything. I’ve seen how you get real protective when Sol’s name gets mentioned. In my mind Sol was no better than Tammy so I … er … sent AJ after him.”
I did turn then, all the way in his arms though he would let me loose. “You what?!” I whispered almost afraid to hear him repeat it.
“Just … just hear me out Riss.” I nodded but did it from a sitting position where there was some space between us. “AJ … he told me … look, I was a bit of a fool too, at least so far as comparing Sol and Tammy. Sol is … he’s a thoughtless kid. Even married and serving in a position of responsibility he’s still just a kid. He probably has no idea – or desire to find out right now – what his actions have wrought. His uncle isn’t giving him much of a chance to be a man either, to find himself … and from what AJ says that girl he is married to put his … er … she’s got him on a short leash too.”
Well, I kinda figured that was gonna happen after only one look at her but to hear it outright didn’t bring me the pleasure I thought it would. “So Sol’s life isn’t quite the gold ring he grabbed for. I still don’t understand.”
“Sol may be a kid but Sol’s uncle is another book of stamps completely. AJ said it was … what did he call it? Oh yeah, he said it was a ‘delightfully exciting challenge to take on the old man.’ And for AJ to say that …” he sighed. “You may very well have had reason to worry if he’d ever wanted to cause you trouble.”
I started shaking but Dino wasn’t having any of it. “Come here. I told you AJ is very good at what he does. There are papers inside in my desk … running into AJ wasn’t an accident. They are notarized and signed by a judge. Sol has given up all of his parental rights to the baby and his uncle has also agreed to not try and make any contact.”
“People say things all the time. That doesn’t mean they’ll abide …”
“Riss, I told you AJ is vindictive but I guess you just aren’t understanding. Not only would they be violating a legal agreement, if they break it AJ has promised to release certain information that would destroy the uncle’s ability to do business. It could open the uncle up to a lot of law suits by former business associates that would pick his little empire apart by the nickel and dime.”
I shook my head, “Why? Why would you do this? And, oh my Lord, will Harry think …?”
“Whoa there. Harry knows me. And we talked before he left. I told him that anything I had against his brother had nothing to do with him … and that anything I did against his brother had nothing to do with him. He understood. He told me if I didn’t do whatever it took to protect you and the baby like I promised he’d come hunting me up.” Dino was smiling a bit at that but I think I know Harry better than he does. Harry has hidden depths and those depths are even more red-headed that the hair on his head is. I let it go since there was no need to go down that road.
“So this means … that … that I don’t have to worry about Sol or his uncle?”
“You don’t have to think about them ever again.”
I sighed. “Dino, I can’t pretend that this baby just sprung from under a cabbage leaf. And I can’t lie that it’s yours, too many people know the truth. There’s gonna come a time when there’s questions that need to be answered.”
“Fine,” he said gruffly. “But we’ll deal with it when it comes. You don’t need to get all worked up about it now however.”
It is a lot to take in and I’m not sure what I think about it. On the one hand, if I can trust AJ to have done the job right then I can breathe a lot easier. On the other hand, what was done and how it happened sticks in my craw. I’m not angry at Dino, not really even though I suppose I could be if I wanted to be. He’d done a lot for me even before he’d gotten to know me … and all on the basis of his wanting something that might not ever have been his. There’s something terribly romantic in that and even though I don’t have a high opinion of romance in general and trust it even less, the idea that someone would do something so … so fateful … gives me the shivers.
Quietly we went back to moving the stuff from the wagon to the house. There was only one last canvas covered item in the wagon and looking at it Dino got that uncomfortable look on his face again. I wasn’t sure I could take anymore but Dino just sighed, shook his head and flipped the canvas back.
“How?! Oh … goodness … help me up here Dino, my belly is getting in the way.”
That was going too far. “You are not climbing in this wagon in your condition. Stop that before you fall. Just hang on and I’ll bring it down.”
“How did you find it? I … I mean …”
“AJ brought it back with him. AJ said that Hannah Bly has an interesting way of getting what she wants and what she wanted was for him to return this to you. It was apparently taken from the barn by mistake and she knows what it means to you. He says there’s a letter inside the cabinet drawer.”
I opened the drawer with unsteady hands and read Hannah’s short note.
Riss, Where ever you are you must have good friends. I’ve never seen Uncle Bill take such a pill as he had to with that Mr. Nichols. Wow, he is yummy or what? You are doing the right thing, Sol is a jerk. Uncle Bill is a jerk too but he is a rich jerk and he keeps Mom and I done up pretty well all things considered. She likes this gilded cage life. It is something I can live with for a while until I decide exactly what it is I do want. All I know for sure is that I don’t want to happen to me what happened to you so I’m picking different friends from the ones that Sol has. Shantelle is a witch and nothing like you at all. She is forever correcting me or telling me off. God she is such a bore. I can understand you wanting to make Sol and Uncle Bill go away, I’d like to too. But still hoping that one day you’ll change your mind and let me know where you are. Trust me, I keep lots better secrets these days, I’ve had to learn. Keep Harry in your prayers, we haven’t heard from him in a while. If you do hear from him tell my twin he better write soon or else. Hannah
There wasn’t much to say so I handed the note to Dino to read. When he was done I said, “We’ll need to warn AJ.”
Looking back at the letter like he’d missed some hidden message I walked up to him and leaned into him for a hug. “Hannah thinks he’s yummy.”