Beth sat across from Jack, laughing over old times. The reprieve from the strains of her everyday life was a relief. He moved in next to her and put his arm around her. She didn’t shrug it off. It felt too good there. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d been with a man, and Jack’s touch caused a streak of heat to flash through her body.
“What are your plans?” she asked.
Jack took a long gulp of his beer and sat the mug down, giving himself time to think of an answer. “I haven’t thought much about it,” he said. “All I could think of the entire time I was in that shit hole was about you.”
A knife twisted in Beth’s heart as she realized the entire time they’d been at Cue’s Alley, their old stomping ground, Jack had not once asked about Timmy. As far as she knew, he had never even seen what their son looked like. He certainly hadn’t asked to see a picture of him.
“I thought I’d look up my old buddy Sean and see if he managed to salvage anything of the business.” He shrugged. “Maybe he still needs a partner.”
He touched Beth’s hand, and the gesture immediately transported her back to the night of the graduation dinner, when she had been excited about “the business” at which she thought Jack would make his millions. She remembered the lopsided grin of doubt her father had given them.
They had walked into the party hand-in-hand. Beth gave her family a huge grin. “I changed my mind. Am I too late?”
Her father glared at her. Her mother smiled. “You’re just in time. We haven’t even ordered yet.” She looked at Jack, gave him a curt acknowledgment. “Good evening, Jack.”
“Good evening, Mrs. Reynolds.”
Beth took a seat, pulling Jack down into the seat next to her. “I’m sorry for my earlier outburst,” she said, addressing her family. “I was rude and inconsiderate.”
“Thank you, Elizabeth,” Velma Reynolds said. She looked at Jack and said, “I noticed you left the country club. What are you doing these days?”
Jack stiffened. Beth stroked his arm. “It’s okay,” she coaxed. “Tell them about your new business.”
Jack hesitated. Then he said, “I opened my own restoration shop.”
Velma looked at him, puzzled. “What kind of restoration do you do?” she asked, thinking he meant houses or perhaps antique furniture. “Do I know anyone whose home you might have done?” She playfully tapped her husband’s arm. “We’ve been talking about remodeling the guest room, Chandler. Perhaps we can help out the young man.”
Beth rushed in excitedly. “Not houses, Mother. Jack restores old cars.”
Velma frowned. “Cars? Really? I thought people just threw those things away when they got too old.”
Beth continued, “He has a partner. You should see what he does with the cars. You would be proud, Daddy. He’s making a ton of money doing it. He’s so good at what he does. I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes a millionaire.”
Jack blushed, squeezed Beth’s hand, and chuckled. “I appreciate the vote of confidence, Lizzie, but let’s take it one step at a time.”
Chandler Reynolds asked, “Do you have a lot of experience with cars?”
Jack waited while a waiter came and took their orders. When he left, he said, “I have an uncle who has a very successful garage. He’s taught me everything he knows. He’s also agreed to lend a hand if I need it.”
“Do you have a good business plan?” Chandler asked.
Jack fidgeted. “I don’t know much about business plans.”
“That’s what you learn in college,” Chandler said sharply.
“Daddy!” Beth exclaimed.
Velma covered Chandler’s hand with her own. “What did we talk about?”
They’d had numerous conversations on the matter. Velma came from the same economic class as Jack. She understood what it was like to have someone look down upon you, measure you, and judge you based upon your social standing. She wasn’t any happier about her daughter dating this young man than her husband was, but she also knew Elizabeth was old enough to choose whomever she wanted. Such strong opposition was only going to drive her farther away.
When Velma first met Chandler, her parents hadn’t been happy, either. Her father, a hard-working grocer, owned a little market downtown. The family lived above it in a two-bedroom apartment. They weren’t going hungry, but they weren’t taking European vacations, either, as Chandler’s family frequently did. The first time they invited Velma along, her father had thrown a fit. She declined out of deference to her father. Her mother, having grown impatient with her daughter’s moping, encouraged her to go along on the next trip. Her father hadn’t been happy, but he wished her a good time. They grew to love Chandler over time, and Chandler waited patiently for the affection to grow. By the time they were married, Chandler and her father were friends.
Chandler nodded at Jack. “My apologies,” he said.
Beth smiled as a mist covered her eyes. “Thank you, Daddy.”
Austin, who until this time had been stuffing bread and salad into his face, looked up and said, “That’s cool, Dude. Do you mind if I hang out sometimes? I love old cars.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Chandler interjected. “You’re going to be busy with your studies. I’m counting on you to take over the business someday. In fact, your mother and I have discussed the possibility of sending you abroad to study.”
Austin shrugged. “Cool.” He looked at Jack. “Sorry, man. I guess I won’t be able to help you out, after all.”
Jack smirked at him. It figured. Golden boy would do what daddy moneybags said. “I never had much of a chance for college, Mr. Reynolds,” Jack said. “It was just my mom and me, and I had to work after school, to help her pay the bills.”
Chandler nodded. He didn’t like this kid. He felt a tug-of-war over his daughter, and he was afraid he was losing. “That was noble of you. Many kids wouldn’t be so conscientious.”
“Well, she’s my mom, you know. I love her, and I need to look after her.”
Beth looked at Jack, confused. He had told her he didn’t like his mother and high-tailed it out of there the minute they put his high school diploma in his hands. She kept her mouth shut, though. She wasn’t going to give her father any weapons to use.
They finished dinner, and to Beth’s delight, a huge cake was set before her. There were several layers to it, each layer a different flavor and separated by a cream filling. Beth squealed when she saw the miniature graduation cap as a cake topper. Chandler stood and tapped his glass with his fork, making a soft ringing noise.
He spoke to everyone in the restaurant. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention.” All the patrons looked at him, some in irritation, but most had quizzical looks on their faces. “My daughter, Elizabeth Renee Reynolds, has just graduated from college today.” They all clapped. “I want her, and all of you, to know how very proud of her I am. Please join me in a toast, and share our beautiful cake with us.” They all cheered and clapped again, some even wolf-whistled.
“Daddy,” Beth said, “you’re embarrassing me,” she protested, but deep down she liked it.
Their waiter cut them each a slice of cake and then circled the room, cutting slices for the other diners.
“So, what’s next for my baby girl?” Chandler asked, looking pointedly at Elizabeth. “Harvard Law? Princeton? You name it, sweetie—the sky’s the limit for you.”
She looked hesitantly at her father, and then at Jack. “ Daddy, I haven’t decided what to do next. Katherine Winters offered me a job as a legal assistant. I thought I might give that a whirl, but first I want to take a trip.”
“Excellent idea. I’ll make all the arrangements. To begin with, you’ll stay at our villa in France. Where do you want to go after that? The Foresters just got back from Portugal. They had a wonderful time. I’ll find out the details. You’ll stay where they stayed.”
Velma, noticing her daughter’s distress, stayed him with her hand. “I believe you’re getting ahead of yourself, dear. Perhaps Elizabeth has other plans.” She looked at Jack. Jack nodded and nudged Lizzie under the table.
“Nonsense,” Chandler said. “This is my baby of whom we’re talking. I want her to be safe. She’ll stay where I say.” He said this with so much force and finality that other diners turned to look at them.
“I want to go to New York,” she said.
“New York? Why would you want to go to New York? You’ve been there a hundred times.”
“Because that’s the last place someone saw Jack’s father. He wants to find him, and I want to help him.”
Chandler shook his head. “I can’t allow that,” he said firmly. “You’ll go where I say.”
Beth looked down at her hands, which lay limp in her lap. Jack nudged her. “I wasn’t asking,” she squeaked out.
Chandler’s eyes hardened. “What did you just say to me?” he asked, although he had heard her perfectly well.
Velma put her hand on his again. “It’s her decision,” she said. “She’s an adult. She can do what she wants. It’s not as if she’s never returning. Right, Elizabeth?”
Beth shook her head. “No, two months max, I promise.” She eyed her father defiantly. He pulled back, startled. She had never done that before. “I don’t need your permission. I’m going with or without your consent.”
The next day she was at the airport. Her mother had come to see them off, but her father stayed home. “Do you have enough money, sweetie?”
She nodded. “Thanks, Mom. I’ve been saving for the trip—I’ll be okay.”
She stuffed a thousand dollars into her purse. “Just in case,” she said when Elizabeth tried to argue. She turned and narrowed her eyes at Jack as if she were a mother lioness warning him. “You take care of her, or you’ll answer to me.”
Jack put his arm around Lizzie’s waist. “You don’t have to worry,” he said. “I’ll bring her back safe.”
She waved as they walked toward the security gate. She watched until they were out of sight, and then she turned to walk away, a sadness falling over her heart. She trusted Jack no more than her husband did, but what was she supposed to do? Elizabeth was an adult. She could make decisions on her own—as well as make mistakes she must own. All Velma could do was be there for her when it all fell apart, and hope she had taught her well enough.
Beth remembered those parting words with sadness. Jack hadn’t kept her safe. Maybe he had on the trip, but the trip was the catalyst that landed her in more trouble than she could handle. Thanks to Katherine Winters, she was sitting here today.
Jack nudged her. “Where’d you go?”
She lifted his arm off her shoulder and moved over slightly. “I was just thinking about how much I’ve changed over the years. Being a single mother has made me a different person. I have a whole realm of different responsibilities, but I wouldn’t change a moment.”
She had gone back to school, obtaining her paralegal license in record time. She had Timmy to wake every morning with hugs and kisses. Then her entire, wonderful, hectic day would begin with her feeding him breakfast, getting him off to preschool. Then there were play dates, dental appointments, and doctor appointments. He counted on her for so many things, just as she counted on him. Jack hadn’t been there for any of it.
She sighed. “What do you want?”
“I want you back.”
“I’m happy with my life the way it is,” she said, shaking her head.
“What about our son,” he said. “Shouldn’t he know his father?”
“That depends on what his father’s like?”
“Lizzie,” he whined. “I’m a changed man. You can take that as a promise.”
She stared at him, thinking back to their parting scene five years ago. She had wanted so desperately to turn back, rush to his side and promise to wait for him. She couldn’t do it, though. She had to think about their child. That hadn’t changed.
She shook her head. “We’ll see about Timmy. But I can’t go through it again.”
“You don’t know what I’ve been through,” Jack protested. “That place is messed up. If I hadn’t had you to think about, and our kid—”
“His name’s Timmy,” she said slicing her words.
“I know that,” Jack said. “It’s the last thing I said every night when I closed my eyes.”
“Really?” Beth asked. Her anger softened a little.
He picked up her hand. She did not resist. “Really.” Jack suddenly looked past her toward the door, becoming agitated.
Beth followed his eyes. She shook her head. “Are you this freaked out every time you see a cop?”
He shrugged. “Habit, I guess.”
She started to rise. “I need to use the ladies’ room.”
He grabbed her wrist. “I meant what I said.”
“Ouch, Jack,” she said, more loudly than she meant. The police officer looked their way. “You’re hurting me,” she cried.
He dropped her wrist. “I’m sorry.”
She walked off, passing the officer as she did. “Everything okay, miss?”
“Fine,” she said, “just a little misunderstanding between old friends.”
She continued walking. The officer approached the table. Jack fidgeted in his seat, spotted Beth’s purse lying on the seat beside him, opened his jacket pocket and extracted a package. He slipped it inside.
“Is there a problem between you and the young lady?” the officer asked Jack.
Jack shook his head. “Why? Did she say otherwise?”
The officer shook his head. “It looked to me like there was trouble.”
“We haven’t done anything to deserve harassing.”
“I’m not harassing. Can I see some ID?”
Jack took out his wallet, sighed disgustedly and handed over his driver’s license, which still had his and Lizzie’s old address on it.
“Is this current?”
“The license is still valid, but the address is old. I just moved back to town and hadn’t had time to change it yet.”
Beth returned to the table, saw the officer and shook her head. “I said everything was okay. Seriously, I can handle this myself.”
She reached across the table and grabbed her purse. “I have to go, Jack. I’m late picking up Timmy.” She turned and walked away.
Jack shook his head. “No, wait. Lizzie!” he called. He rose to follow her, but the officer stopped him.
She turned back. “It’s Beth or Elizabeth. I haven’t been Lizzie for five years, and I don’t want her to reenter my life. Call me about Timmy if you’d like, but leave us alone.” She spied the car keys on the table next to his beer. She snatched them up. “Find your own damn ride home.”
Jack tried to push past the officer. “She said to leave her alone,” he said, holding Jack’s bicep firmly in his hand.
Jack felt anger surfacing. He yanked his arm free. “Let me go. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“You’re harassing the young lady.”
Jack, knowing he was beaten, sighed and relaxed. “Okay. I got it,” he said. He sat back down, picked up his beer, and waited for the police officer to leave. He would have to catch up to Lizzie later, and hope she didn’t discover the package in the meantime.
Beth took deep, calming breaths as she made her way home. Her mind refused to stay focused. She couldn’t stop thinking about their conversation.
Despite her convictions, her heart still pounded when she was near him. She didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that she might still be in love with him. She thought they had been good together, but his betrayal of her had killed that, or so she thought.
She slammed the steering wheel. “Why, Jack? Why did you have to come back just when we were doing so well?”
A horn blared at her. She looked up to see she was straddling the line. She yanked the car back to her side, just as a siren behind her gave a few short beeps. She looked in the rearview mirror, saw a flashing light, sighed, and pulled over.
A police officer approached the window. She rolled it down. “I’m sorry, officer,” she said as he neared. “I’m afraid my mind just wandered for a minute. Stupid thing to do, but I’m okay now.”
He bent down and shined a flashlight in the car. “Where are you coming from?” he asked.
She grimaced. Thank God, she had only had two sips of that beer. “Cue’s Alley,” she said, “but I’m not drunk. I only had two sips.”
“I need to see your license and registration, please.”
She pulled her wallet out and extracted the license. “Here’s my license, but the car belongs to a friend.”
“Would you mind stepping out of the car, please?”
“No problem.” She figured he was going to ask her to go through all the usual tests for drunk driving. No problem, she could pass with flying colors. She got out.
“Stand here please.” He led her to his car, making her stand near the front fender. Keeping his eyes on her, he reached into his car, pulled out his radio transmitter and gave the operator the license plate number.
“This isn’t necessary,” she said. “I swear I only had two sips. I’ll walk your line and all that, but I’m late picking up my son from daycare.”
A woman’s voice coming out of the speaker said, “That car was reported stolen earlier today, Joe.”
The officer looked at Beth, whose face had gone stark white. They stared at each other, each of them shocked speechless. Within seconds, she was back in the alley on that fateful day with five police pistols pointed at her face.
Beth sighed and held out both wrists, waiting for the handcuffs. “I’m going to get you for this, Jack Cole.”