Beth pulled into her parking stall and just sat in her car. She still shook from the encounter at the beach and, for the first time, knew what it would be like without Timmy. She shivered. She thought of Jack again, once more caressing the locket. Why couldn’t she get him out of her mind? She knew an affair with him would be dangerous, yet every time she thought of him, her desire flared. Not only was Jack handsome, but he was also the best lover she had ever had. Not that she’d had many lovers, who had time when she had to care for Timmy?
Timmy stirred in the back seat. She should get him into bed. She stepped out of the car and went to him, struggling to get him out of his car seat. For a moment, she wished she had taken her brother up on his offer. Timmy shifted positions, throwing her off balance. She stumbled forward, ready to pitch face first to the ground. Strong arms encircled her. She gasped, ready to turn and fight to protect her son.
“Easy, there,” an all too familiar voice crooned in her ear.
She closed her eyes and relaxed. Longing flooded through her, making her knees weak. “Jack,” she whispered. She looked around, saw that no one was watching. “What are you doing here?”
He reached out and took Timmy from her. She resisted at first, but overburdened by his weight, she relented. She led the way to the apartment and opened the door. He followed her to Timmy’s room and laid him gently on the covers. Beth took off his shoes and pants. She lifted him gently and pulled the covers down, and then over him. Jack watched her expertise and marveled. “I’ve missed so much,” he whispered.
She looked at him, not sure how…or if she should answer him. “What are you doing here?” she repeated.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a package. “Happy birthday, Lizzie.” He thrust the package into her hands, forcing her to take it.
“No, Jack,” she protested and shoved it back at him.
He held up his hands, refusing to take the package. “I owe you so much more.”
Timmy stirred and turned over onto his side.
“Shh,” Beth warned, and moved toward the door.
Jack looked around at the room. A sun and moon theme decorated the bed and windows. Dozens of little glow-in-the-dark stars twinkled from the ceiling. “It must have taken you hours to do that,” he said.
Unable to hide the irritation, she said, “Austin helped.” She paused. “He helps me do a lot of things.” She left the room, wandering into the kitchen to put on the teakettle.
Jack felt the sting of her words. He sighed. “Of course—Austin,” he said, following behind her.
She stopped and glared at Jack. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He shook his head. “Never mind—I didn’t come here to argue.” He pointed at the teakettle. “Do you mind?”
She shook her head and took down two cups. “I’m having tea. What do you want?”
“Do you have instant coffee?”
“I hate the stuff, but if you don’t mind it being Austin’s, I’m sure I bought some for him.” She grinned at the expression of discord on his face. “He’s not that bad.” She chuckled lightly.
“He hates me.”
She nodded. “True.”
“Not even going to try and pacify my feelings?”
She was spooning coffee into a mug but stopped to look at him. “My entire family hates you.”
“Gee, like I needed you to point that out.”
“I don’t even know what I would have done over the years without them, especially Austin.” She poured water into the cups. She stirred. “You still take it black?”
“No other way.”
She handed him a cup and took hers to the sofa. He looked at her for a moment, not sure what to do. She patted the sofa beside her. “Sit.”
He brought his cup and eased himself down beside her. “Are you going to open your gift?”
She looked at it resting on the table where she had previously set it. He reached over and picked it up. He gave her a pleading look. Taking pity on him, she set down her cup and unwrapped the package. The look of surprise on her face baffled Jack. Was it pleasure, or displeasure? He thought for sure she would like it. Then her eyes clouded over as tears pooled in the corners. She blinked and one tear escaped, He wiped it away with his thumb. “What’s the matter, Baby. Don’t you get it?”
She bit her lip, trying not to cry. “I get it,” she said as she held up the bracelet for inspection. She played with the gold panda dangling from it.
During their first summer together, Beth had developed a passion for zoos. Pandas particularly interested her. She couldn’t get enough of them. She went to the library and checked out every book they had. Then she went on the internet and read to Jack every known panda fact she could find. “Did you know pandas eat about eighty pounds of bamboo a day?” she asked. Her eyes danced with amazement.
“I didn’t know that,” Jack had replied, falling even deeper in love with her with every word she spoke. “That’s a lot of food.” He loved her passion for learning new things and the glint in her eyes when she retold some new and interesting fact.
“At one time they were thought to be part of the raccoon family, but now they think they are bears.” She had said this with pride as if she were some small schoolchild a teacher quizzed.
He had looked over her shoulder at the website from which she had been reading. He kissed her head. “They certainly look like bears.”
She had touched the screen then. A faint smile came to her lips. “They’re beautiful.”
They had traveled all over that summer, looking for as many zoos with pandas as they could. San Diego had proven to be her favorite.
“Where’d you get it?” she managed to choke out. She struggled with it, trying to get it on.
He took it from her. “Aw, don’t cry. It’s supposed to make you happy.”
She lowered her eyes, hoping that if she didn’t look at him, the urge to throw her arms around him and kiss him would disappear.
He set down his cup and moved closer. He took his fingertips and gently turned her face toward him. His touch made her burn with longing. “Don’t cry, Lizzie,” he said, looking deeply into her eyes.
Her voice cracked, as she said, “Don’t. I can’t handle it right now.”
She turned her face away, but he pulled it back. “I’m not going to hurt you, Lizzie.”
“Beth,” she said. “It’s Beth.” She stood quickly, wiped at her eyes, and strode across the room, keeping her back to him.
He sat back. “I’m sorry.”
She spun around. “Why did you come here? And don’t say to wish me a happy birthday.”
“The truth is, I don’t know. I ache for you and Timmy. All those years I sat in prison, all I could think about was you and our son. I had that one picture you sent me, and I held on to it for life.”
She tipped her head and narrowed her eyes. She hadn’t remembered sending a picture, and then suddenly she did. Timmy was just a baby, and she, and he spent the day out together. She pushed him all over San Francisco that day. By the time evening approached, she had seen so many couples with a new baby, that she ached with a need for Jack to be beside her, despite her anger toward him. In a moment of weakness, she had taken a picture of Timmy and mailed it to Jack—just that, no letter or well wishes attached.
“I knew I would get out one day, and that’s all I concentrated on.”
“The police are looking for you.” She raised both arms and held them out, palms up. “I was arrested because of you. I won’t put my son through that.”
“Our son!” His voice boomed, and then softened. “He’s our son, Lizzie.”
“It’s Beth. Do you even hear me! It’s Beth,” she cried out, her voice rising. “I haven’t been Lizzie for a very long time. And quit trying to bring her back.”
She paced the floor, anger flowing through her veins. She pounded her fist in the air, could feel the little panda swaying back and forth on its chain. She reached out with one hand and grabbed the offending trinket. She pulled hard, grunting with the effort. “Lizzie’s gone, do you hear me? She’s gone.”
Jack watched in despair as she snapped the little panda free. She looked down at it, frozen in shock at what she had done. She looked at Jack, saw the hurt on his face, and crumbled to the floor. She sobbed hysterically—all the years of frustration and anger at Jack coming out. “You left me to take care of him by myself,” she heaved between sobs.
Jack rushed to her, pulled her tightly against him. “I’m sorry, Baby, not by choice. Please believe me. I would never have left you if I had any control over it.”
She struggled to get away from him, but he held her tightly. “Please, Beth, please don’t cry,” he said—but at the same time, he knew she had to. He sat down and straddled her body. “It’s okay. I’m here now. I’m going to make it all right. I promise.”
She relented, letting him comfort her. She had been holding this inside for so many years that it needed to come out. She knew with all her heart that it was wrong to love him—dangerous even. But, she couldn’t stop herself. Jack Cole had gotten under her skin. They had shared so much together, loved so deeply, and created a beautiful little boy. She held up the panda in one hand and her arm with the chain on it. “It’s broken, Jack. I broke it. I didn’t mean to break it.”
He smiled tenderly, kissing each hand and pulling both her arms to his chest. “I can fix it. And I can fix us, too.”
She leaned against him, and he held her. After a while he stood, pulling her up with him. “I’d better go,” he said. “Can I look at our son again before I do?”
She nodded, and he walked toward the bedroom. He took so long she went to check on him. He was sitting beside his bed, crying. “Don’t wake him,” Beth whispered.
“I don’t want to leave him,” he said.
“Then don’t,” Beth said.
He turned and looked at her. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, stay and fight. If you run out again, you’ll only make it worse for yourself.”
“I can’t go back to prison.” She just looked at him. “Please, Beth. Don’t ask this of me.”
“Do you want your son to look up to you?”
“You know I do,” he said.
“Then do what’s right.”
He stood and wandered out of the room. She followed. “I don’t want to fight about this,” he said.
He felt the beginning of a headache, grabbed the sides of his head near his temple, and rubbed with all his might. She found his hands and pulled them away, replacing them with her own. She rubbed gently, whispered, “You can do this, Jack.”
“I can’t, Lizz…” he started to say, stopping himself in time, not wanting to anger her again. “How can I, Beth?”
“Do it for him,” she said. “Do it for us.”
“Are you saying there’s a chance for us?”
She looked him in the eye, a small smile tugging upward. “I’m saying there might be a chance, but it can’t be like this. I’ll not put Timmy through it.”
He nodded. In a low voice he said, “What can I do?”
“Talk to Katherine.”
He laughed heartily and pulled her hands away from his head. He kissed them and then paced the floor. “Oh, no, Baby, not her. She hates me more than your family does.”
“She wouldn’t if you did right by Timmy and me.”
“Are you sure, Lizzie? Are you sure this is the way to go?”
She scowled. “Lizzie’s not sure of anything. Lizzie’s just a stupid kid. Beth, however, is positive.”
He grinned and pulled her to him. “You have grown up.”
“I had to. I couldn’t be a kid raising a kid, now, could I?”
He walked to the door. “I’ve got a lot to think about.”
“I have to think, and I can’t do it with you hammering at me like that.”
She sighed and opened the door. “Then go and do your thinking.”
“You’re not mad?”
She shook her head. “Confused maybe, but not angry.”
He closed the door. “It’s hard to go.”
They were standing only inches apart. He leaned down and his mouth found hers. It was almost as if the last five years hadn’t happened as if he could hit rewind, and they’d be back at cue’s alley, and he could do things different.
She tasted salty from her tears, her breath sweet from her tea, and he wished he could savor it forever. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I have to go,” he said, breaking from the kiss.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“I have to think,” he repeated.
She pursed her lips. Then she smiled and pulled his mouth back to hers. She pressed her body tightly against him. “Don’t think too long, Jack. My offer has a time limit.”
She opened the door. He stepped into the corridor, turned and kissed her briefly one more time, shuddering when the door closed behind him. He thought of her on the other side, waiting for him. Had she been waiting for him all this time, saving herself for the day he returned? She was a beautiful woman. Even with a kid to look after, men must have flocked around her. He wondered if she lingered at the door, waiting for the sound of his footsteps to fade away. He reached out to knock but pulled his hand back at the last minute. As much as she and Timmy called to him, there was the threat of prison to consider. He lowered his hand. Closing his eyes, remembering the kiss, he turned and walked away.