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  • Home > Lisa Kleypas > Smooth-talking Stranger     

    "That's all in your own mind. No one believes you when you say things like that, Ella."

    "Tara believes me."

    "She doesn't remember anything about Roger," my mother informed me triumphantly. "Not anything at all."

    "Does that strike you as normal, Mom? To have large episodes of your childhood blocked out completely? Don't you think she should remember something about Roger?"

    "I think it's a sign that she's been doing drugs or drinking. Those things run on your father's side."

    "It's also a sign of childhood trauma or abuse. Mom, are you sure Tara didn't just go to the store?"

    "Yes, I'm sure. She left a goodbye note."

    "Have you tried her cell phone?"

    "Of course I did! She won't answer." My mother was nearly choking with impatience. "I gave up the best years of my life taking care of you. I'm not going through it again. I'm too young to have a grand-baby. I don't want anyone to know about this. You come get it before anyone sees him, Ella! Do something with this baby or I'll give it to Social Services."

    I blanched as I heard the edge in her voice, knowing it wasn't an empty threat. "Don't do anything," I said. "Don't give the baby to anyone. I'll be there in a few hours."

    "I'm going to have to cancel a date tonight," she said darkly.

    "I'm sorry, Mom. I'm coming. I'm leaving right now. Just hold down the fort. Wait, okay?"

    The phone clicked. I was anxious and trembling, the air-conditioned breeze glancing off my neck and making me shiver.

    A baby, I thought miserably. Tara's baby.

    I trudged into the kitchen. "Until this moment," I said, "I thought the worst thing that could happen tonight was your cooking."

    Dane had taken the skillet off the burner. He was pouring something bright orange into a martini glass. Turning, he handed it to me, his green eyes warm with friendly sympathy. "Have some."

    I took a swallow of gingery-sweet gruel and grimaced. "Thanks. I was just thinking I needed a good stiff slug of carrot juice." I set aside the glass. "But I'd better take it easy. I have to drive tonight."

    As I looked into Dane's concerned face, the calmness of him, the sanity of him, was like being wrapped in a soft blanket. He was casually handsome, blond, and lean, with the perpetual toasted-and-salted scruffiness of someone who had just come in from the beach. Most of the time Dane dressed in denim and hemp and enviro-sandals, as if he were perpetually ready for a spontaneous trip to some equatorial region. If you'd asked Dane to describe his perfect vacation, it would have been some survivalist trek through an exotic jungle, equipped with only a nylon water bag and a pocket knife.

    Although Dane had never met my mother or sister, I had told him a lot about them, furtively unearthing memories like fragile artifacts. It wasn't easy to talk about my past, any part of it. I had managed to trust Dane with the basics: my parents had divorced and my father had left us when I was five. All I heard of my dad after that was that he had gotten a new wife, new children, and there was no place for Tara and me in his second time around.

    Regardless of his failure as a dad, I could hardly blame him for wanting to escape. It bothered me, however, that my father knew what kind of parent he had left us alone with. Maybe he reasoned that daughters were better off with their mothers. Maybe he had hoped my mother would get better over time. Or maybe he feared one or both of his daughters would turn out exactly like her, and that was not something he could handle.

    There had been no significant man in my life until I had met Dane at the University of Texas. He was always gentle, reading my signals, never demanding too much. He made me feel safe for the first time ever.

    And yet for all that, there was something missing between us, something that nagged at me like a pebble that had worked its way into my shoe. Whatever that missing thing was, it kept Dane and me from reaching absolute closeness.

    As we stood in the apartment kitchen, Dane put a warm hand on my shoulder. The shaky-cold feeling began to subside. "From what I was able to hear," Dane said, "Tara dumped off a surprise baby with your mother, who's planning to sell it on eBay."

    "Social Services," I said. "She hasn't thought of eBay yet."

    "What does she expect you to do?"

    "She wants me to take the baby off her hands," I said, wrapping my arms around myself. "I don't think she's given much thought to anything beyond that."

    "No one knows where Tara is?"

    I shook my head.

    "Want me to go with you?" he asked gently.

    "No," I said, almost before he could finish the question. "You have too much to do here." Dane had started his own environmental monitoring equipment company, and business was expanding almost too fast for him to handle. It would be difficult for him to take the time off. "Besides," I said, "I don't know how long it will take to find Tara, or what shape she'll be in when I do."

    "What if you get stuck with this kid? No, let me rephrase—what are you going to do to avoid being stuck with this kid?"

    "Maybe I could just bring it here for a few days? Just long enough

    Dane was shaking his head firmly. "Don't bring it here, Ella. No babies."

    I gave him a dark look. "What if it were a baby polar bear or a baby Galapagos penguin? I bet you'd want it then."

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