Mari didn’t know what to say. Her biological father was finally in front of her and the questions that had clamored around in her head for years suddenly went quiet. She floundered, searching for something to ease them into conversation. 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.”
There were a million more important questions on her mind, but they had time to get to those. This didn’t stick in her throat and make her second guess herself.
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, Reese has a look to him. He’s your bodyguard, isn’t he?”
“What I said was truth. Over the years Reese has become a very good friend, but yes he watches my back too. There’s more than one reason for that.” He blew out a harsh breath.
“Would I need to get a shadow myself?”
He laughed softly and amazement was clear on his face. “I wasn’t going to say much about Reese because he’s part of a complex situation. It crossed my mind you would be afraid and probably want less to do with me than you already do. Yet here you are, and the first thing you’re asking me is what steps you might need to take. You are every inch Miranda’s daughter.”
His voice went jagged. “She was so fearless. She’d jump right in and figure it out as she went. And she always figured it out. There wasn’t a single thing that could stop her when she set her mind on something.”
Mari rubbed her finger at the corner of her eye. This man had known the woman she’d loved more than life itself, the woman who’d left a huge hole in her life when she died.
“Did you love her?”
“With everything I had in me,” was his immediate answer.
“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. That’s not something I’m saying to avoid hard questions. That’s the unfortunate truth. But I’ll give you every answer I can, as much information as I can.”
“Let’s start with that.”
“I didn’t leave her. Miranda and I made a decision together to do what was best for you and her. It wasn’t one we liked, but it was one we could live with given our situation and we’d planned for it to be temporary. We agreed to stage our breakup and say you weren’t mine. She came back here to stay until our situation was under control. It kept her out of sight and gave no one any reason to believe she or you could be used against me.”
His jaw clenched.
“What was the situation?” Mari’s press for answers was quiet, but she needed to know.
“That’s an answer I can’t give you. We made a plan for what we knew. We didn’t expect the situation to change the way it did and we had to make another choice. That choice meant she and you stayed here longer. 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. She did that, gave me you and her in every way she could, 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 as she tried to grasp the notion her mother was never coming back. If it hadn’t been for her uncle, she would’ve lost it. Blake reached out for her, but dropped his hand 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. Hear 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. 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.”
She stared at him, searching for any signs of insincerity. She couldn’t find any. Her mother hadn’t lied. Raoul 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 before he sat down beside her.
“You won’t tell me what the situation was, a situation that has somehow managed to last my entire life, so how am I supposed to know if what you’re telling me is the truth or a convenient excuse?”
He didn’t answer immediately.
“You don’t. You only know what I’m telling you. Whatever Raoul may have told you. And if you don’t know, that man would lay down his life for you. I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t allowed it. You’ll have to decide what you believe and who you trust. If I could change that, I would. I would’ve changed everything. I can’t do that. I can only do what I’m doing now.”
Silence fell and Mari didn’t rush to fill it. 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. It would also explain why it hadn’t ended. People didn’t just walk away from running criminal enterprises.
“You’re here now,” she pointed out.
“I’m here now. And nothing has changed. It’s still dangerous. I took every step possible to hide this trip from anyone who might take notice, but that’s not a guarantee.”
“Then what makes now different?”
“You. And Raoul. He couldn’t lie to you when you asked as directly as you did, not as an adult. And I’ll admit I’m being selfish. You asking Raoul gave me the excuse I needed to see my daughter in person for the first time in over a decade. I couldn’t justify it based on my own need, but I could based on yours.”
She drew a mindless pattern in the sand.
“So now what? Explain to me how this is supposed to work. We have this little meeting, you leave in a day or two and…I just go back to pretending you don’t exist?”
He scratched at the back of his head and wet his lips. “I’ll be honest with you. I’m here with no plan. No next steps. When I found out you’d asked…I just started making the plans I needed to get here. 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. Miranda and I made choices you were far too young to make. You’re an adult now and it’s time to let you make your own choices.”
When she’d started down this path, she hadn’t truly considered the weight of the choices she would have to make.
“You couldn’t just walk away? From whatever it is? You can’t do that now?”
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 and likely ended them in brutal deaths. 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.”
His entire chest lifted and fell with the force of his sigh. “What’s been started isn’t something I can walk away from. If I could, even with her gone, I would. You have to know I’d do that for you. It’s just not an option. I know that’s hard to accept without knowing everything, but I’m asking you to believe me when I say that.” He paused, rubbing at his chest. “What happens from here on out is up to you. If you want more time, for us to try to figure this out, 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.”