“Tracy? Thanks for calling back so quickly. Does this mean it’s OK for me to come out there? You have no idea how much I’m dying to see him and I . . .”
Tracy cut him off.
For years afterwards, Jeff Stevens would dream about that phone call. He would recall everything. Exactly how the handset had felt in his palm. What his flat smelled like in that moment. The distant, empty echo of Tracy’s voice, how it was her but not her. How she hadn’t cried, or shown any emotion, merely laid out for him the cold, terrible, incomprehensible fact of Nicholas’s death.
“I’m coming, Tracy,” Jeff told her numbly. “I’ll get the next flight out.”
“Tracy, I have to. I can’t let you go through this alone.”
“I can’t go through this alone.”
“Don’t come, Jeff.”
It was like talking to a zombie.
Jeff’s voice broke. “For Christ’s sake, Tracy. He was my son too.”
“I know. That’s why I called you,” Tracy said logically. “You had a right to know.”
“I love you, Tracy.”
Tracy hung up.
For about a minute, Jeff stood frozen, allowing the shock to pass through his body like an electrical current. Then he picked up the phone and booked himself a flight.
There would be time for other emotions later. An eternity of time in which to mourn the son he never really knew, not properly. Time for all the questions, all the whys and hows that he’d been unable to articulate on the telephone.
Right now he had to get to Tracy before she did something stupid.
IT TOOK ALMOST EXACTLY thirty-six hours from the moment Jeff received Tracy’s phone call in London until he pulled into the driveway of her isolated Colorado ranch.
The last time he came here—the only other time he’d been to the house, in fact—Jeff had been so weak he could barely walk. His ordeal at the hands of Daniel Cooper, the former insurance agent turned rogue vigilante, compelled by a murderous obsession with Tracy, had left Jeff physically broken. But in the end, ironically, Daniel Cooper had done Jeff Stevens a favor. Perhaps the biggest favor of Jeff’s life. OK, so Cooper had tried to crucify him and bury him alive in the walls of an ancient Bulgarian ruin. But he’d also achieved what Jeff had failed to achieve in a decade of searching. He’d brought Tracy back to him, and with her, Nicholas. For that, Jeff Stevens would always be grateful. Tracy had found Jeff and rescued him and saved his life. In return, Jeff had agreed to let Tracy live her life, as an unassuming mom in a small town in the mountains. He would leave her to raise their son with the help of her ranch manager, Blake Carter, because he knew Carter was a better man than he was. And because Blake loved Nick and vice versa.
It was the right decision, Jeff told himself now, failing to fight back tears. Nick was happy. He was!
Jeff had told himself he would have time to make things up to his son once the boy was older. When Nick was a grown man, when the time was right, Jeff and Tracy would sit down with him, together, and tell him the truth. As an adult, Nick could make his own choices. Jeff didn’t know why, but he’d always felt confident his son would forgive him. That Nick would understand, and that the two of them would have a full and warm relationship, making up for lost time.
But now both Blake and Nick were dead.
There was no more time.
Everything was lost.
The pain was indescribable. Jeff spent the entire flight sobbing. Passengers around him asked to be moved. The regret was like a physical weight, a Mack truck parked on Jeff’s chest, snapping each rib one by one before crushing his heart to pulp.
Why did I do it?
Why did I let him go?
I made a terrible, terrible mistake. And now I can never put it right.
It’s too late.
By the time the plane landed in Denver, Jeff had no more tears to cry. He wasn’t relieved so much as spent, emotionally and physically emptied. On the long drive up into the mountains, he thought about Tracy. If the pain was this bad for him, what must it be like for her? Jeff had lost the idea of a son, the hope for a relationship. Tracy had lost the reality. Nick was the child she’d longed for all her life. The child she believed she would never have. She had carried him and given birth to him and loved him every day of his life with the fierce passion of a lioness protecting her cub. Even her own body must remind her of Nick. For Tracy there could be no escaping the grief, no end to the tears.
With a loss that great, Jeff thought, suicide must seem like a pretty rational option. Perhaps the only rational option.
Panic swept through him as he recalled Tracy’s strange, empty voice on the line.
“There was an accident. Blake died at the scene. Nick died the next morning from his injuries. I’m sorry.”
She spoke like she wasn’t there. Like she’d already checked out.
Jeff drove faster. When he finally reached the ranch he was hugely relieved to see lights on at the house and two cars parked outside. People were moving around inside, walking past the windows.
Good. Tracy has friends, people who knew she mustn’t be left alone.
Jeff wondered briefly how he was going to explain himself to those friends—who should he say he was?—but he soon dismissed the thought. It didn’t matter now. He would see Tracy, he would hold her, they would cry together. After that . . .
Jeff couldn’t think about after that.
He ran up the steps to the front porch and was about to knock on the door when he realized it was already open.
“Hello?” He stepped inside. Half-packed crates littered the entryway. The table where Jeff had played cards with Nick was upside down, its legs swaddled in bubble wrap. An officious-looking woman with an iPad hanging around her neck on a string was taking paintings down from the walls.
“What’s going on?” Jeff demanded. “Who are you?”
“Karen Cody. Prudential Real Estate.” She was about to scowl, until she noticed how attractive the dark-haired man was. His eyes looked tired, and he was graying at the temples, but the firm jaw, sensuous mouth and toned athlete’s physique all more than made up for any shortcomings. Karen fluttered her false eyelashes. “May I help you?”
“Mrs. Schmidt is on the East Coast right now.” The Realtor chose to ignore Jeff’s rude tone.
“I understand she’s staying with relatives.”
Jeff thought, Tracy doesn’t have any relatives. Not living anyway.
“Such a tragedy.” Karen shook her head sadly. “Are you a . . . close friend?”
Jeff didn’t answer. Instead he ran upstairs, desperately opening and closing doors, as if Tracy might suddenly materialize. At last, despondent, he returned to where the Realtor was standing.
“Did she say when she’d be back?”
Karen Cody gave the handsome man a pitying look.
“I’m afraid she won’t be. She’s put the house up for sale. That’s why we’re here.” Karen Cody gestured to the crates around her.
“But . . . wh—what about the funeral?” stammered Jeff.
“There’s a memorial for Mr. Carter on Wednesday. I believe Nicholas’s remains were already cremated.”
“Already?” Jeff looked stricken.
“His mother wanted things expedited. I understand she scattered the ashes privately. If you wanted to pay your respects, the middle school is holding a vigil on—”
“Did Tracy leave an address?” Jeff interrupted her. He wasn’t interested in vigils or memorials. He didn’t want to “pay his respects.” He wanted answers. How had Nick died? Tracy said an accident, but what accident? What the hell had happened?
“A contact number? Anything?”
“She did not. To be honest with you, I think the poor woman just needed to get away. The sale of the ranch is being handled through Mrs. Schmidt’s trustees. Perhaps you could talk to them?”
Jeff’s heart sank.
Tracy knew I was coming. She knew I couldn’t stay away.
She knew, and she ran.
I scared her off.
The Realtor said, “I can give you a contact for the trustees’ office if you’d like one, Mr. . . . what did you say your name was again?”
“I didn’t,” Jeff said. “Where’s Nick’s room?”
Karen Cody bristled. Handsome or not, this man was beginning to irritate her. “At the top of the stairs, first on the right. But you can’t just . . .”
Jeff started up there.
“We’re in the middle of packing,” Karen called after him. “This really isn’t a good time.”
Jeff called back over his shoulder. “Don’t touch his things.”