Mari didn’t know what to say. Her biological father was finally in front of her and the questions she’d had for years suddenly went quiet. She floundered searching for something to ease them into conversation but her mind kept coming up blank.

“Let’s walk the beach.”

She glanced up at him, surprised by the suggestion.

“I didn’t visit but I kept up with you. I don’t want this to be any harder than it already is and if being on the beach will make it easier, I don’t have a problem with sand in my shoes.”

That was how Mari found herself dragging her feet through the sands of the shore with her father walking alongside her. He surprised her once more when he’d followed her example and taken his shoes off before they started to walk. She lifted her face to the sky, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply. He was right. Being out on the beach made it easier. She opened her eyes.

“So I’m guessing there’s a reason you have a live shadow.”

Blake’s head jerked up and he gave her a startled smile as he kicked at the sand. She smirked.

“Yeah, good friend or not, Ken has a look to him. He’s your bodyguard, isn’t he?”

“What I said was truth. Over the years Ken has become a very good friend, but he watches my back too. There’s more than one reason for that.” He blew out a harsh breath.

“Do I need to get a shadow myself?”

He laughed softly. “It crossed my mind you would be afraid, probably want nothing to do with me. Yet here you are, asking me what steps you might need to take. You are definitely Miranda’s daughter. She was so fearless. There wasn’t a single thing that could stop her when she set her mind on something.”

“Did you love her?”

“With everything I had in me.”

“Then why did you leave her? Leave us?”

He stopped without warning. His eyes didn’t waver in their focus on her when she stopped and turned to look at him.

“There are things I can’t tell you for your safety and mine. Miranda and I made a decision together to do what was best for you. It wasn’t one we liked but it was one we could live with and so when the time was right, she took you away. She sent me pictures of you, stories of the things you were getting into, any little piece of your life she could get to me until the day she died.”

“And when she died? When both of my parents were gone?” she demanded, furious with the tears stinging her eyes.

She could still remember the days of numbness and then the days of utter despair that followed. If it hadn’t been for her uncle, she would’ve lost it. Blake reached out for her but dropped his hands when she shook her head. She swallowed hard and forced the tears under control.

“When she died I thought about coming back for you. I wanted to come back for you but the reason we made our decision hadn’t changed. It wasn’t safe for you to be connected to me. That wouldn’t have mattered if you didn’t have anyone. I would’ve come and I would’ve made it work but I knew Raoul. I knew how close you were to him and I knew he would take care of and protect you like his own. So instead of uprooting your entire world, taking you away to live with me when you had no clue who I was and putting you in danger, I left you to his care. I could at least give you Gage too. That wasn’t an easy choice to make for me but I had to put your safety above my wanting to have you with me. Gage and Raoul picked up where Miranda left off. I have pictures of you leaving for school, your first solo guide trip, your graduation, you out here in the water, everything they could think of.”

Her mother hadn’t lied. Whether or not she could deal with his decision to stay away, this was a man who cared. She lowered herself down into the sand and stretched her legs out, letting the water lap at her feet. He waited a beat longer and settled down beside her.

“You keep talking about my safety. What is it that makes being connected to you so dangerous?”

Tyler’s speculations were first and foremost in her mind. If he were involved in the things Tyler suspected then it would explain the danger and his secrecy.

“I told you there’s some things I can’t share. That’s one of them. Things might all come to a head in the coming months. If that happens, I can explain everything to you in detail starting from the beginning. For now I keep you safe with ignorance.”

“You’re already here. Isn’t there a chance someone could make the connection now anyway? I’d rather know what I’m being kidnapped and/or killed for if it’s going to happen.”

His hands clenched into fists. “Don’t joke about that. That’s why Gage is here and why I have people who have no direct connection to me keeping an eye on you.”

“So what? Explain to me how this is going to work. We have this little meeting, you leave tomorrow, and I just go back to pretending you don’t exist?”

He scratched at the back of his head and sighed. “I don’t have all the answers. When Gage got in touch with me and said you knew, that you wanted to meet me, I just made it happen. This is the first blind move I’ve made in years but I thought you deserved this much since you know about me. I figured we could sit down and figure it out from here together.”

She hesitated, turning his words over in her head. “She didn’t talk about you much. Of course I was little when she died but when I asked questions she would always say that you were a good man. That you loved me.”

His smile was faint and tinged with sadness. “I didn’t deserve her but I’ll always remember the time we had together. She brought happiness into a room just by walking in. Not having you two with me was hard.”

“Was she ever Miranda Mason?”

That earned her a genuine smile. “She was Miranda Mason when she died but only four, now five, people know that. I protected her just as I protected you. She was safe if no one thought she was important to me.”

“You couldn’t just walk away?”

He leaned forward with his elbows propped up on his knees and stared at her. “If I could’ve I would’ve done it the second you were born but it would’ve meant the three of us spent the rest of our lives on the run. I didn’t want that for my girls. We made a different choice. Some days I regret that choice. I know there were days she did too, but we have to live with the results. What happens from here on out is up to you, Marielle. If you want more time then I’ll make that happen. If you don’t want anything beyond today…” He trailed off, turning his head to stare out at the water. “I’ll accept that and I’ll make that happen too.”

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