"No." Sandy held out her arms. "I'm not."

Lindsay dived onto the sofa and cuddled next to her. Her firstborn, the one who tried so hard to be grown-up and mature, buried her head in her mother's shoulder and sobbed.

"I'm s-sorry, Mommy," she said, her voice broken and contrite. "I didn't mean to do anything bad. I swear I didn't. I swear."

"I know." Sandy stroked her hair. "Hush, baby. It's going to be all right."

"It's not, but I'm going to do everything I can to fix it. I want to, Mommy."

Sandy knew she would go from "Mommy" back to "Mo-om" soon enough, but for the moment, she enjoyed the closeness.

"Tell me what happened," Sandy said. "I want to hear your side of the story."

Lindsay raised her head and stared at her. She brushed away her tears. "You never want to hear my side of anything," she said, obviously surprised.

"That's not true," Sandy said automatically, then wondered if it was. She knew she was pretty strict with her kids, but she didn't think she'd forgotten to listen to them. "Maybe it is true." She didn't want it to be. She made a vow it wouldn't be true anymore. "Tell me now, okay?"

"I will, but…" Lindsay picked at the hem of her nightgown.

"But what?"

"Could you please not ask me why. You ask that a lot and I don't always know why I do something. Sometimes I just do it and then it's done and I can't take it back."

She smiled at her daughter. "Believe me, I understand that more than you think. So what happened with those girls?"

Lindsay leaned against her mother's shoulder and talked about the two friends she'd made at camp. "I liked them a lot because they were, you know, older. There were a couple of other girls I met. They weren't as cool. I sort of liked them more, but I wanted to be popular." She grimaced, "Going to jail isn't going to make anyone like me."

"Don't worry, you're not going to jail."

Lindsay glanced up at her. "You'll get me a good lawyer? Like on TV?"

"You're not going to need one. Go on with your story."

Lindsay sighed. "When we got back from camp, there wasn't anything to do around here. I started hanging out with them. Millie wanted to go to the mall. She said there was a way to get clothes without having a lot of money. At first I thought she meant, like, you know, a sale or something. Then she said she wanted to steal them."

Lindsay sat up straight. "I knew it was wrong and I told her I didn't want to do it. So I walked away, but I was still looking at things in the store. Then Pam came and got me and we started walking out. Millie handed me the bag and told me to carry it." She looked at her mother. Her mouth trembled. "I didn't know the clothes were stolen." She grimaced. "I think I sorta knew, but I didn't want them to be. I didn't know what to do. I almost dropped them and ran out, but I got embarrassed, so I just carried them out." She lowered her head to her chest. "Then Mr. Porter came running after us. He grabbed us and called the police." She shuddered. "You know what happened after that."

"It's okay, baby," Sandy said, drawing her close again.

Lindsay came willingly. "I'll never forget the look on Kyle's face. He wasn't angry or anything, but he looked real disappointed. Like he'd expected more of me. At first, I thought he was going to let me go. I didn't want him to tell you because I knew you'd kill me. But he said he couldn't do that. He said I had to face what I'd done. I was crying and everything. I said some pretty mean things to him."

"Yeah, me too," Sandy said softly.

Lindsay had acted foolishly, but her heart had been in the right place. Blake was healing from his father's neglect, even little Nichole was more cheerful than ever. Sandy wanted to say the improvements were because of her, or their new environment, but she knew it was Kyle's influence that had changed their lives for the better.

"Have you decided what my punishment is?" Lindsay asked cautiously.

"You won't be able to see either of your friends again, but to make that easy, they're both going back home."

"What else?"

"Nothing."

Lindsay sat up straight. "Nothing? But aren't you mad? What about grounding me, or no TV or no dessert or something?"

Sandy shook her head. "Sorry. You're going to have to live without punishment this week, kid. I know you didn't set out to steal anything. You made a bad decision under pressure. I think you've learned a lot from the experience. If it ever happens again, then life as you know it will cease to exist." She smiled. "For now, though, you're off the hook."

"Wow! Mom, I'm impressed." Her happiness faded. "Unless I have to go to jail."

"I told you, no jail. Travis called the store manager, and the charges have been dropped."

"Really?" Lindsay flung herself at her mother and hugged her tight. "That's great." She scooted back, then grimaced. "Are you still mad at Kyle?"

"How did you know I was?" Sandy asked, wondering if any of the children had heard them tonight.

"I was in the room when you asked Travis to take Kyle off my case." Lindsay sighed. "It's not his fault he had to arrest me, Mom. He was just doing his job."

"How do you know that?"

Lindsay shrugged. "He told me it was hard for him to do it. I didn't want to believe him, but there was this look on his face. Like he was going to cry or something. Guys don't cry, do they?"

Sandy rose to her feet and crossed to the window. There was only one light on in the living room, so she could make out some shapes in the yard. Down the driveway was the faint outline of Kyle's house. It was dark. Was he sleeping tonight, or was he lying awake thinking of all that they'd said to each other?

"Sometimes they cry," Sandy said. "They get hurt feelings, just like women do."

"You could tell him you're sorry," Lindsay said. "Then he'd like you again."

"I don't think that's going to be enough." She wasn't sure there was anything she could do to make up for what had happened between them. He'd been right and she'd been desperately wrong. The worst part wasn't only that she'd hurt him. She knew he would understand she'd just lashed out and he would forgive her. Kyle was, if nothing else, fair-minded. The worst part was forgiving wouldn't be enough. She'd thrown his love back in his face and he likely wouldn't be willing to offer it to her again.


Chapter 16

Sandy had hoped that by morning she would have come up with a brilliant plan, or at least found a way to accept the mess she'd made of her life. The sight of sunlight offered neither. She felt as if an entire herd of elephants had trampled over her heart and the thought of spending the rest of her life without Kyle was far too gloomy to even consider. She'd made a horribly hideous mistake and she didn't know how to fix it.

She sat up in the too-big bed and leaned against the headboard. Okay, Kyle was gone. She would never see him again. Now what? How did she go on? How did she survive knowing he was just at the end of her driveway? Maybe he would move and make things easier for all of them. But she didn't want him to leave. She liked knowing he was close.

She rolled onto her side and groaned in frustration. A shaft of light fell onto the nightstand. She stared at the photograph there. It had been taken the Christmas before Thomas died.

She picked up the picture and stared at the posed scene. She sat with Nichole next to her. Thomas was on her other side. Lindsay and Blake stood behind them. She remembered the inscription from the card: The Walker Family Wishes You Happy Holidays. But their family hadn't had a happy holiday. Thomas had taken off for a ski trip. His plane had left at three-thirty on Christmas Day. He hadn't even stayed long enough to carve the turkey. As the door had slammed shut behind him, she'd sworn there wouldn't be another Christmas like that. She'd been right. A few months later, as she was trying to decide on a divorce lawyer, he'd been killed while mountain climbing.

Sandy still remembered the numbness that had come over her when she'd received the phone call. She hadn't loved Thomas anymore, but she hadn't wished him dead. Still, the nightmare was over. Her life was her own again. She'd been determined to make a go of it, and to never fall into that trap again. She didn't want another man-child in her life, she wanted a partner.

She continued to study the photograph, looking at Thomas's face as if she'd never seen it before. Thomas would never have arrested Lindsay. He would have found a way to make it easier for her. Of course, Thomas wouldn't have wanted to be a cop in the first place. Way too much self-sacrifice in that profession for him. He wanted easy hours with lots of time to play.

She put down the picture and leaned back on her pillows. What had it cost Kyle to arrest Lindsay? She knew he genuinely cared for her kids. It had been wrong of her to accuse him of tricking her into sending them to camp. He wouldn't have suggested their going if he hadn't thought they would have a good time. Yes, it gave them time to be lovers, but what parent hadn't arranged for their children to go away in the hopes of some quiet, romantic time with their spouse? It's not as if he'd wanted to lock them in the closet or something.

He was a good man. A kind man. He made her blood boil and her palms sweat. He'd told her he loved her and she'd let him walk away. Sandy closed her eyes and groaned. She'd been a fool. More than a fool, she'd been full of pride and stubbornness and determined to have it her way, even if that meant being unhappy for the rest of her life.

So where did she go from here? Did Kyle believe in second chances or had she blown it completely? Did she deserve a second chance? Could she risk trusting him with her children and herself? Could she risk giving up the control?

She got out of bed and pulled on her robe. She could already hear the kids downstairs. After washing her face and brushing her teeth, she started down toward the kitchen. As she passed the family room, she saw the scattered magazines and games. Somehow, in the last few weeks, her perfectly clean home had deteriorated into controlled chaos. But Blake was laughing more. And Lindsay picked up the dishes after dinner without being asked. Nichole was starting to make her own bed and asking how to help with the laundry. Her children might not be as tidy as they had been but they were happier and learning about growing up. Wasn't that worth a messy family room?

Kyle had had a hand in this. The kids looked up to him. They depended on him, and he was there for them. He'd taught Blake how to defend himself and how to throw a mean curveball. He'd built a dollhouse for Nichole and had often dropped everything to drive her over to her friend Mandy's house. He'd patiently listened to Lindsay's latest cassette, then later winced at the loud music he hated.

As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she realized she'd been searching for reasons to make Kyle likeThomas. She'd wanted the two men to be alike so she wouldn't have to face her own fears. Kyle had been right that afternoon in the park. She hadn't wanted to face the truth, so she ignored it. But she couldn't any longer. The failure of her marriage hadn't all been Thomas's fault. Yes, he'd been like a child, always wanting to go and do, regardless of his commitments. But she'd always been the parent, scolding him, never taking time for fun. She could have gone skiing with him occasionally, or agreed to take the whole family camping. But she'd resisted. Maybe because she'd been so angry with Thomas for leaving her all the time.

As her mother had before him, Thomas had abandoned her. She'd punished him the only way she knew how-by withdrawing emotionally, retreating into her safe world of lists and schedules. The rules never let her down. But they did leave her lonely.

"I'm sorry, Thomas," she whispered, and in that moment saw all she could have done to meet her husband halfway. But it was too late. He was gone.

And here she was, repeating the same mistake again. She was about to lose another man. The man of her dreams. Her soul mate. She had to see him, to talk to him and explain. Except Kyle already knew her darkest secrets.

Sandy walked toward the kitchen. As she passed through the dining room, she remembered the last time Kyle had come over and they'd used this room. He'd sat at the head of the table and made the children laugh with his easy humor. It had felt right to be together, but even then, she'd been trying to find a way to destroy everything. She'd allowed her fear to control her heart.

She loved him, she thought as she walked into the kitchen. She loved him enough to try. But was it too late?

Her three children looked up at her. Their gazes were wary. Not because she might be angry, but because of what Lindsay would have told them about last night. That telling Kyle she was sorry might not be enough to get him back.

She pulled out a chair and sat down. Nichole set her spoon on the table. "You don't look happy, Mommy."

"I'm fine." She ruffled her daughter's bright curls. "We need to have a family meeting."

"What's that?" Blake asked. He was still in his space-fighter pajamas. His hair hadn't been combed and his glasses were sliding down his nose. But the shadows were gone from his eyes.

Lindsay rolled her eyes. "Don't you guys know anything? It's when we all sit around and talk about things. In some families, they even vote on things."

"Vote?" Blake asked. "You mean I get a vote."

Sandy wrinkled her nose. "Yes, we're going to have a vote, but first I have something to say." She cleared her throat. "It has come to my attention that I haven't been listening to you guys as much as I should. I want you to know I'm sorry for that. I love each of you very much. This move has been hard on all of us, but it's working out. I'm proud of how you're helping and I want you all to be happy. So from now on, we're going to have regular family meetings and discuss things. All right?"

They all nodded.

"Is there anything you'd like to say?" she asked. "Anything you want changed?"

"No more stars," Blake said. "I hate that dumb poster."

"Me too," Lindsay said. "I'm way too old to get stars, Mom."

"I like it." Nichole glared at her brother and sister. "I want to keep the stars. I like getting presents."

Sandy held up her hand. "Okay, Blake and Lindsay, you two will get a chore list but no stars. Nichole, honey, you can keep your stars and you'll still get your rewards when you've done what you're supposed to."

"Neat," Nichole said, then picked up her spoon and starting eating.

Sandy cleared her throat. The next part wasn't going to be so easy. "It has also come to my attention that each of us is very fond of Kyle. Is that true?"

"He's okay," Lindsay said, then grinned.

Nichole just nodded, but Blake stared at her. "You guys getting married?"

"I don't know," she answered. "We haven't exactly discussed it. In fact, he's not very happy with me right now."

"I told you, Mom, tell him you're sorry," Lindsay reminded her.

"It's not that simple. Between adults, things can get complicated." She didn't know what to tell them. That she'd completely messed up? "I'm going to go talk to him."