She couldn’t breathe! Kimber’s head swam from lack of oxygen as she tried desperately to gulp in enough air. If Tawny hadn’t had a firm grip on her arm she would have wandered aimlessly around this damn monstrosity of a building looking for a way out until she just crumbled wherever she wound up. By some act of God, Tawny managed to get her outside and to her car. How she had held in the scream that welled in her chest she would never know. For once in her life, she didn’t want to be dignified or poised. She want to rant and rave, tear out her hair as she pummeled the unbelievably asshole standing like an idiot upstairs.
Did he think she would never find out? Did he really believe he could have kept the knowledge of their child from her forever?
He almost had. Chills could not begin to explain the ice that her skin had become.
Nine years! Nine fucking long, hard, empty years she had lived with shame, agony, and defeat. Kimber had never believed her father when he said her child had died at birth. Although drugged and disoriented, she had remember the wail of a newborn, had reached out to touch the miracle that she had struggled to birth right before her world faded to black. She had spent every waking moment trying to find that baby. She had harassed every adoption agency from New York to South Carolina looking for some sign, some clue that her baby was still alive. She had never known if it had been a boy or a girl. Her father never let up on his insistence the child had been born dead, but Kimber had known in her soul that wasn’t true.
She had almost willed herself to die in the beginning. Believing she had lost everything, she hadn’t wanted to face another day without Holden or their baby. It was days later when her brain began to clear from the drugs they had given her in the tiny private facility that she began to suspect something wasn’t right. The nurses hadn’t been able to look her in the eye, the doctor had refused to talk to her, reporting directly to her father who would not even allow her the dignity of being examined in private. As soon as she received her high school diploma, she had left her father’s house and pursued her degrees with single minded determination.
Kimber had never known her mother. The mysterious Cathy Knowles had died when she was three years old. Kimber had always resented that. In her young, fanciful mind, Kimber had convinced herself her mother had died to get away from her father’s autocratic, distant ways. But Cathy had left her daughter a way to precious freedom, leaving her more than enough to pay for her own education in a trust her father couldn’t touch with enough left over to live more than comfortably on.
Although she had used the money to pay her tuition and various bills, she had worked two, sometimes three jobs to pay for private investigators. She had no time for anything beyond school and finding her child. Dozens of private investigators and more than a couple of restraining orders later, there had been no trace of the child she had born, dead or alive. When her search had been exhausted on the east coast, she had decided to come back here, back to where it had all begun.
Not once had Kimber ever considered Holden would still be here, teaching at the same college where their father’s had been colleagues and sometimes research partners. Holden had wanted to go into physics, which meant he would have gone to a school like M.I.T. or somewhere similar. The last place she would have ever guessed to find him was teaching as a Literature professor. He had always teased her on her love of reading what he considered fluff. What the hell was he doing as the fucking department Chair of the English Literature Department?
Dean Whittaker had hired her without a personal interview, for which she had been honored and grateful. Now she realized she should have looked into the English Lit Department more carefully. Usually cautious, Kimber had only wanted to come home, to confront, and then bury her past. She had thought perhaps to begin to live again. She had planned on visiting Holden’s parents, who had always been like family to her, getting his address, then writing a long confession letter explaining what had happened. She thought he would be married with children by now, probably far too involved in his own life than to give her confession no more than a cursory once over, maybe a sad smile. That ass had been here the entire time, raising her child without so much of a thought to get in contact with her. He could have found her if he had tried. Hell, she had damn sure found him and Lord knows she was far from trying to see him again!
If he hadn’t been here, she would never have known her child was alive. That though soothed some of her anger. She had a little girl! A little girl with toasted almond skin and her father’s laughing bluish-gray eyes. She was so beautiful it almost hurt to look at her. Almost. She simply had to stare; she had to imprint her daughter’s face in her mind for all time. She lived too long with the ghost of the child could be like; the reality was so much more than anything her imagination could’ve conjured. If Holden hadn’t burst into the office suite she would have probably still been staring at the sight she had despaired of ever seeing. Kimber had been afraid to reach out and touch the little girl; scared that if she dared, she would disappear into a puff of smoke.
How could Holden had kept knowledge of their daughter from her like that? After all that had happened, never once had Kimber blamed him. She had always held him up in her mind on a pedestal. He had always been her ideal man, the main reason she had been physically incapable of having a normal relationship with any other since high school. She had never believed her father when he had told her Holden had cursed her name and washed his hands of her as soon as he had dragged her to live in Boston. She just knew Holden loved her. After all this time, she had suspected he would be married with children, but she had been secure he would at least have some fondness in his heart for her.
But how could he? How could he have felt any regard for her at all? Surely he had to know she would be desperately looking for her child. He’d known her well enough to know she would’ve never willingly given up her own flesh and blood had she been able to help it. Why would he keep the knowledge her baby was safe and loved with him? Why be so cruel knowing all Kimber had ever wanted was the love and security of a real family- the one thing she’s never had herself.
It was punishment, pure and simple. For whatever reason, Holden’s failure to disclose he had full custody of the child they’d created together was punishment. But why? For leaving him? Surely he recognized she had had no choice! She had been seventeen when she found out she was expecting. Her father had whisked her away before she had to the chance to tell Holden about her pregnancy. Was that why he had done this to her?
It was not like the Holden she knew. As Tawny drove toward the small condo she had purchased, pieces of the puzzle slowly fell into place. There was no way Holden could have gotten custody of their baby without the assistance of her father. While she had been kept sedated, having fallen apart after they had told her baby was dead, Reginald (she refused to refer to him as Father, even in her thoughts) had had more than enough time to fly back to
California with the baby. He had no doubt informed Holden and his parents that she didn’t want the child. Lies, half-truths and deceit dripped so easily from Reginald’s lips. Holden should have seen it as a lie. Out of all the people in the world, Holden should have known her heart and mind. There wasn’t anything she hadn’t shared with him, no secret desire she hadn’t confessed. But he had believed reginald, and he had blamed her. Or had he?
So why had he named the baby after her? She didn’t believe Reginald had told Holden she had died. He hadn’t been shocked to see her. Surprised and frantic she had already seen Kimber, or Kimmie as the little girl told her everyone called her. But he hadn’t been shocked. That meant he had believed whatever line of bull Reginald had fed him, and it wasn’t that she was dead.
Why? Why had he had so little faith in her? What had she ever done to make him believe she would be so callous?
He believed it because he wanted to. The thought came back to her over and over again. He hadn’t wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. He hadn’t cared enough to see for himself.
“I’ll make you some tea,” Tawny offered as they entered her small abode.
Kimber looked around at the boxes stacked along the bare white walls. The starkness of the place matched her mood perfectly. She didn’t feel like having company right now. She just wanted to go her room and climb into her cold, empty bed to like her wounds. She would decide on a course of action later, right now, she just needed to get rid of the throbbing ache in her head.
“Look Tawny, thank you for bringing me home, for being there for me…” Kimber closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t form polite words to explain her need to just be alone.
Fortunately, she didn’t have to. Tawny knew her well enough to get the message.
“I’ll call you later,” Tawny sighed, kissing her on the forehead. “Lock up behind me, okay?”
A brief nod was all Kimber could muster as she walked her friend to the door. Tawny paused, and then turned to face her once more. Kimber knew what was coming, but she just didn’t want to hear it.
“Maybe you should, I don’t know, give him a chance to explain.” Kimber repressed the urge to shake her head, to yell and scream at her friend that Holden didn’t deserve the chance to explain jack shit. He had never afforded her the same courtesy, why the hell should she? She managed to hold it inside, but just barely. “You both have been through some heavy shit, you know? You were both lied to. Try to remember that.”
Yeah, well, she’d certainly never blamed Holden before today. She’d never doubted him or his love. More the fool she.
Tawny didn’t wait for an answer, for which Kimber was relieved. She couldn’t give Tawny the reassurance she would be fair. Damn it, she didn’t want to be fair. Who had been fair to her? No one! Not Reginald, not Holden, not even Holden’s parents who had always seemed to love her. She would not be magnanimous; she would not be the bigger person. She was the one who had walked around for nine years with a giant fucking whole in her heart-no, in her soul. She would not be the one letting everyone else off the hook this time. It was time that the world owed her for once.
Kimber closed all the drapes and curtains, turned off all the lights, and then lay on the couch staring at nothing. She allowed the pain to course through her, accepted the anger with open arms without thinking too deeply about the implications or reasons. Evidentially, the pain began to subside to where she just felt numb. She pushed everyone and everything out of her heart, allowing room for only one other than herself.
Kimber Ann Bainbridge. The precocious nine year old with the bright eyes and equally bright smile was the only person she found that she gave a damn about. She loved the little girl with a fierceness that surprised her. She didn’t know her daughter at all. How was it possible to feel such immediately love and protection for a little person she didn’t even know? Yet, she did. She loved that little girl with a ferocity that scared her.
Holden could try to keep her away from her daughter if he dared. She would destroy him. There was surprisingly no anger in the thought, just cold determination.
She was so deep in thought that when the doorbell rang, she didn’t think twice before swinging the door open without looking and returning to her station on the couch. She had expected a return visit from Tawny, especially since she had studiously ignored the ringing telephone. She was no doubt worried.
“Do you always just let whoever is on your door in?”
Oh, God that voice! Why did that voice bring her so much pain still? Because he betrayed you. It hurt, it hurt so bad, her stomached cramped and her head throbbed.
“Why are you here?” It was the correct thing to say, although she knew very well why he was here. He was here to make amends, to try to make it right. Well, it was too late for that. About nine years too late.
“Please look at me, Kimmie.”
The soft plea was far too close for her liking. And the nickname, the same one he had given their child. As much as she didn’t want to open her eyes, she couldn’t seem to keep them closed.
Time had been kind to Holden. Whereas he had always been handsome to the point of almost being beautiful; now, he had ruggedness that enhanced his natural looks. He was incredibly virile; his muscles had thickened, making him appear stringer, more manly. There was a wisdom in his blue-gray eyes replacing the optimism that had once been there. And pain.
The pain offended her. What the hell did he feel pain about? He hadn’t lost a child. He hadn’t spent untold sleepless nights in tears, wondering where that child was, or even if that child even existed. He had held their baby whenever she cried, seen her first smile, heard her first words. All of these things Kimber had been robbed of. How dare he feel pain!
“Why are you here?” Contempt laced every word, surprising Holden a bit.
Good! Did he think she would welcome him with open arms?
“I thought you gave her up.”
Just when she thought the anger had run its course, seething resentment came back with a fierceness even she was unprepared for. The grief and pain crashed into her so hard she couldn’t breathe. She wanted to hurt him, to make him feel at least a tiny amount of the anguish she felt. But there were no words, no way to convey her need to see him aching like she ached. Maybe then he would understand the waking nightmare she had been living through. Instead of slapping him this time, she lunged, throwing her body on top of his. Never had she hated the way she hated right this second. Never had she wanted to wrap her hands around someone’s throat and choke the living shit out of them.
But as soon as their bodies collided, memories returned in a rush, washing over her like a tidal wave.
He didn’t bother to try to protect himself; he just cushioned her fall when they landed on the floor, his arms surrounding her with a gentleness she hadn’t felt in so damn long. She froze, unable to hit him, as was her intention. When his large hand began caressing her back, she was a goner. No one had touched her with gentleness in nine long years. No one had held her so gently, or spoke as softly as he did now. In fact, the last time she had been held, it had been Holden who held her.
“Damn, Kimmie I missed you so much.”
Kimber hadn’t believed she had tears left, yet they rushed her eyes before she could choke them back. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of her heart and mind, she had always fostered some hope she would one day find her way back into these arms again. Surely allowing herself just a few minutes wouldn’t do any harm?
“I hate you.” The words were muffled because she had buried her face in to his chest, taking in his scent. His cologne was woodsy and crisp, and oh, so manly she felt her core heat and melt. But then, Holden had always smelled so good, so perfectly male.
Would it feel as good as it used to?
No! No, she could not allow things to progress that far. She had to establish some boundaries. In a minute. Just one more minute.