It was time.

Mari couldn’t put it off any longer. She’d made the decision and she needed to let the others know. There was no use in dragging it out any further. She parked at her place after work and was getting ready to head to the main house when she found the stuffed toy jaguar holding a single green and yellow flower from the Rocanda trail.

She steeled herself against the emotion threatening to rise. First it was the pinwheels and now this. As always, everything Tyler did was specific to her. The time he granted her was definitely coming to an end. That was fine. She’d made more decisions about him during her tours that day too. She would deal with him later. For now she picked up the stuffed animal, trying not to hold it to her chest as she started across the grass.

When she opened the back door Allison was at the stove stirring what smelled like cabbage in a pot. Gage sat at the breakfast bar with a laptop in front of him, focused on it as if it held the answer to all life’s questions. Raoul was seated beside him, playing with his hands without any real thought.

He looked every minute of his fifty-four years. She didn’t want to see that, didn’t want to acknowledge how all of this was affecting him too.  She had her hands full dealing with her own thoughts and emotions. She couldn’t handle his too.

She shut the door behind her and just stood there. Allison turned at the sound and offered a tentative smile. She didn’t miss Raoul and Gage’s eyes on her either.

“Hey Mari. Will you join us for dinner?”

Given she hadn’t eaten a full meal all day she didn’t see a reason to turn her down. “Dinner would be good, but make it to go though. Today was a long day.”

Allison’s smile weakened as she nodded. Then her eyes landed on the stuffed animal in Mari’s hand.

“From Tyler? I haven’t seen him around much lately.”

Raoul jerked to attention then as if the same had just occurred to him. Mari shrugged off the question as she came farther inside and spun one of the stools at the bar around to take a seat.

“Things have been busy.”

She saw the raised brows at that. Truthfully, “busy” never kept her and Tyler from finding a way to spend time together before, but given the tension over news of her father she didn’t expect them to push. She was right.

She set the toy on the table and leaned her chair back on two legs. Her eyes swept over Raoul and Gage.

“I made a decision about my father.”

Both men tensed as if bracing for what she would say next. Gage closed his laptop and angled to face her fully.

“Let’s hear it,” he encouraged with a smile.

“I’ll meet him,” she said on a rushed breath. “I’m not promising anything after that, but I’ll do that much.”

Raoul seemed frozen for a minute before he nodded slowly. “Okay. Okay.” He swallowed hard. “I don’t want you to feel pushed into this, Mari.”

Gage whipped his head around to stare at him. “I don’t think she’s been pushed at all,” he said before looking to Mari. “Do you feel like you’re being pushed?”

Mari let her chair thud back to the ground on all fours, unsure of what to say. She felt pushed by her conversation with Tyler and knowing what he wanted. She felt pushed by the years of unanswered questions. She felt pushed by the vague answers Raoul had given about a man who supposedly loved her.

Raoul ignored Gage’s question and focused solely on her. “I told you I thought Miranda would want this. That wasn’t a lie, but it was a low blow. More than she would want that, she would want you happy. If this is going to make you unhappy, don’t you force yourself through it out of some sense of obligation to her. And there’s risk to this. I kept the truth from you for your safety and if you do this…there could be risks associated with that. You have to know that before you commit to a decision.”

“What kind of risks?”

“Raoul,” Gage warned.

“There are…dangerous elements associated with your father. People could try to hurt you or take you to get to him.”

“Why? And why didn’t you lay all of this out before?”

“Because it’s complicated!” he snapped stunning her. “And I’m constantly being reminded it’s not even my story to tell you! I don’t even know all of the story! I just know enough to know it could be dangerous! That my little girl could get hurt! So I have to try to protect you and give you want you want at the same time!”

Gage’s brow drew down in a furious V and he braced his hands on the edge of the island as he pinned Raoul with a hard stare.

“Is this about her…or you?” he asked.

Raoul flinched. Allison came to the table to set a foil-covered plate in front of Mari before she stood at her husband’s back.

“I deserved that,” he acknowledged and reached up to cover Allison’s hand on his shoulder. “This is about what you want and need, Mari. Whatever choice you make I can live with, I will live with. But I still want you to make sure you’re making the right choice for you.”

“Papa…” she whispered.

His hand tightened visibly on Allison’s as tears filled his eyes. Mari shoved out of her chair to go to his side, wrapping her arms around him. He turned into her. His hold was fierce, but she had no protest. It had been the two of them struggling to build a life in Miranda’s absence. For years, it had been just the two of them and he’d been the only father she’d ever known. And he was hurting.

“I’m sorry I pushed so hard,” she said quietly into the hug. “It doesn’t change this. Us. Nothing ever could.”

He shook under her words. They stayed just like that, taking shelter in one another.

“Our world already changed once,” she reminded him. “We survived. We’ll do it again.”

He laughed softly and turned his head to press a kiss to her temple. “I’ve given you everything I can. The choice is yours to make.”

Mari hesitated as she slowly pulled out of his arms. She looked at Gage before looking back to Raoul. Finally she pushed out a breath.

“I told myself I would do it for Mom, because she would want that. And that’s true, but I need to do this for me too. I’ve had questions and me being mad isn’t worth not getting the answers. So I’ll meet him. Not for Mom. Not for him. Not for anybody else. I’m doing it for me. Risks and all.” She squeezed the back of her neck as she rose from the table. “So like I said, set that up and give me a little warning. At least a day.”

Gage’s shoulders dropped and a small smile played at his lips. “You always were wise beyond your years.”

She shrugged then grabbed her gift and lifted the plate up toward Allison. With a faint smile of thanks, she backed up toward the door. “Thanks for dinner.  I’ll catch up with you guys later. Just…let me know when you know…something.”

“Goodnight Mari,” Allison returned with a gentle smile as she let herself out of the house.

It was done. The only thing left to do was wait for word from Blake. Just because she made the decision didn’t mean she was ready for the outcome though. She needed to use that time to pull herself together and prepare for that.

She crossed the yard on the little path leading back to her place and ducked under the branch of the willow tree. The moment she was free of the tangling vines she froze in her steps, squeezing the stupid stuffed animal in her other hand. Tyler sat at the bottom of the stairs leading up to her place with his elbows braced on his knees and his hands clasped in front of him. They looked at each other in silence before he eased to his feet. He didn’t move toward her though. He slipped a hand into his pocket and waited.

Taking a deep breath, she gave up on a quiet night in and walked out to meet him.


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