“You’re rather quiet tonight, Robert. You usually have a lot to say after visiting your sister.”
Robert pulled his gaze from the tree branches bobbing in the wind outside the window and brought it back inside his therapist’s Dorchester office.
Dr. Doris West, a stout woman with an ultra-pale complexion, a rectangular face, and a square, somewhat masculine-looking chin, stared at him from a white wicker chair. Her hair was a cobweb of silvery gold that made her look much older than her fifty-something years. Robert supposed taking on the burdens of the constant stream of broken patients who flocked to her door had robbed her of her youthfulness.
She adjusted the spectacles on her high-bridged nose, brushed back thin bangs of hair from her forehead, and squinted her hazel eyes at him. “What was different this time, Robert?” she asked in a voice, soft and prodding like an adult would use on a distracted child.
“Weddings make me sentimental.”
She chuckled softly and shifted on the chair. “They have that effect on me, too.”
Robert leaned back into the sofa and studied the labyrinth of deep wrinkles that had taken up permanent residence on her face. He’d started seeing Dr. West four years ago, a year after he’d first discovered that Timmy Gleason, the man who’d raised him and Michelle, was not their biological father, but a homeless imposter who’d stabbed their real father, Dwight Carter, to death in a back ally in Richmond, Virginia, where his family had once lived.
Robert was a malleable four-year-old when the murder occurred, so it was easy for him to believe the fabricated story his mother had drilled into his head the night she’d returned to their Church Hill apartment with a strange man—a man he clearly knew wasn’t his father, but whom he’d accepted as such from that night forward.
Through hypnosis, Dr. West had taken him back to his pre-Timmy Gleason years and helped him awaken the memories that had been suppressed for decades. Before long, his personal memory tract began to come back into focus, and he could hear and see his real father—and recall the woody smell of Old Spice tainted with the smell of motor oil on his skin. He’d begun recalling specific events, pleasant time spent with his parents, laughing and playing together as a family. One recurring memory was sitting on his mother’s lap at the kitchen table while his father fixed their toaster oven, tinkered with the handle of their fridge, or fixed the hinges on a drawer that had fallen apart. Robert loved to burrow his nose against her neck and breathe in her cocoa butter and lavender scent. They used to be happy. So happy…
Robert smiled as he remembered visiting the garage where his father worked as a mechanic. He used to look forward to hanging out with his dad on weekends while his mother worked as a waitress in a local diner.
“I would never want to be a mechanic,” Robert had said to his father, who’d been working under the hood of an old pickup truck.
“Because my hands would get greasy and dirty and Mommy would have to clean under my nails with a toothpick, like she cleans yours. That would hurt.”
His father had chuckled. “As long as your work is honest and you enjoy it, it doesn’t matter what you do, my son. I love working on old engines because I love the sound of them roaring back to life. It gives me satisfaction that I brought something back from the dead. What do you want to do when you grow up, my little Robert?”
“I don’t know, Daddy. Maybe I’ll be a fireman.”
“Why a fireman?”
“’Cause I like big red trucks.”
His father had dropped his greasy rag on the engine and straightened up like a giant. “No, Robert,” he’d said, wagging a finger at him. “You should always know why you want to do something. If you know why you want to do something, you’ll feel fulfilled as you do it. If you’re not certain why you’re doing it, it won’t bring you satisfaction.”
He’d returned to working on the engine for a few minutes, and then paused to glance at Robert again. “That goes for love as much as it goes for work, Robbie. I know you’re too young to understand, but I’m going to say it anyway. You must know why you love one woman above all others, why you want to marry her, and make a family with her. I know why I wanted to marry your mother.”
His father had dropped his rag again, came over to the bench where Robert was sitting, touched his greasy finger to Robert’s nose, and kissed him warmly on his forehead. “Because she’s beautiful, strong, loyal, kind, and loving,” he’d said, his black eyes smiling as he stared into Robert’s brown ones. “She has a big heart and she makes me happy. But above all, I knew she would give me a sweet little boy just like you. And soon she will give me a—”
Robert jumped at Dr. West’s voice. He shook his head, blinked away the pleasant memories, and then frowned as he realized that he was lying on his back on the sofa. When had he become so comfortable and assumed the proverbial position in his counselor’s office? He pushed to a sitting position. “Did you just hypnotize me?” he asked.
She wrote something on the pad on her lap. “You know I will never do that without your permission, Robert. You just zoned out. I’ve been patiently waiting for you to come back.” She took a quick glance at the clock on the table beside her chair. “I would have allowed you to remain in your happy place, but I do have another client in fifteen minutes.”
Robert was moved by the smile that flitted up her face to her eyes. She always referred to her patients as clients. “I guess this was a wasted trip?” He rubbed at the muscles in his neck.
“I won’t say that. Maybe you just needed to come here to relax.”
Yeah right. He could have gotten a full body massage, a pedicure, a manicure, and a fancy dinner for a lot less than what he was paying to sit on Dr. West’s sofa and zone out.
“What brought you here tonight?” she asked as if she didn’t know.
He always saw her immediately following his trips to Granite Falls when his internal dilemma about Yasmine was at its highest peak. Tonight was no different, although he’d been hoping not to see Dr. West at all.
Yasmine had been overly affectionate in Granite Falls, especially when they were in the company of his sister and their friends, giving him hope that she’d been infected with the love and commitment bug. She’d looked stunning at the wedding, and had caught the attention of many eligible bachelors who’d asked her to dance at the reception. Robert had cut in on every one of those dances. And Yasmine had smiled her wickedly teasing smile every time he pulled her out of the arms of another man.
After Michelle and the gang left for their honeymoon, he and Yasmine had hightailed it back to the LaCrosse mansion and had made love into the night and early the next morning. Robert trembled at the steamy memories, but just as quickly his body tensed in frustration.
On their ride back to Boston yesterday, he’d tried to engage Yasmine in conversation about the wedding, the kids, and how happy the couples were in their marriages, but she’d changed the subject every time, until he’d just given up in defeat. If she’d only asked him nicely to stay last night he would have, but she had to go and make it seem as if she didn’t care one way or the other. That had pissed him off.
Robert left the sofa and walked over to the window he’d been staring out of earlier. “The usual,” he finally said in respond to Dr. West’s question.
“Wanting what your sister has, and frustrated that Yasmine is holding out on you.”
“She’s too liberal. Too independent.”
“Those are the things you love about her.”
What exactly is she writing? Robert wondered as Dr. West jotted on her notepad.
“You say you love Yasmine and that she loves you, although she’s never said it out loud. But, Robert, have you ever stopped to think that maybe she isn’t the right woman for you, or that you’re not the right man for her? Sometimes love just isn’t enough.”
Turning his back to Dr. West, Robert shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks and clenched his fists as her words reverberated around in his head. He didn’t want to think of Yasmine as not being the right woman for him. She was. “Of course we’re right for each other. We’ve known each other all our lives. She’s been in love with me since she was a little girl. I probably loved her when I was younger too. I couldn’t dwell on those feelings for obvious reasons.”
“She turned down your marriage proposals, Robert. Twice,” she added with emphasis.
“Neither one of those times was right for her.” He paused. “Time seems to be always against us, doesn’t it?” His voice was heavy with cynicism. “Time, and Yasmine’s commitment issues brought on by her career. Love doesn’t last in her line of work. Her skepticism is warranted.”
“You defend her, yet you’ve stopped seeing her several times over the past five years.”
“That was just to cope with my frustrations.”
“Your frustrations with her, or with yourself?”
Robert walked across the carpet and, resuming his spot on the sofa, he stretched his legs casually before him.
“You once told me that you felt as if you needed to resolve the issue with your past before you can fully commit to any woman,” Dr. West continued, looking at him speculatively. “Since you have your own reservations about settling down before the mystery of your past is solved, I can’t help but wonder if you’re somewhat relieved Yasmine turned down your proposals.”
Robert locked his hands together behind his head and pondered on her observation. Could he really be unjustly placing all the blame for their stagnant relationship on Yasmine? Sure, it was always easier to blame the other party when things weren’t going the way one wanted.
“Or perhaps you resent Yasmine for voicing her suspicions that the man who raised you wasn’t your father,” Dr. West continued. “Her theory sent you searching for the truth of your existence and made you relive that horrifying night in your past?”
“No way!” Robert said heatedly to her absurd suggestion. He pulled his legs up and sat forward, and planting his elbows on his thighs, he clasped his hands tightly together. “If anything at all, I love Yas more for her insightfulness. If it weren’t for her, my sister and I would have had to carry the disgrace of that imposter for the rest of our lives. Yasmine gave us the means to eliminate the stain that man had placed on our family name. She gave us the chance to live our lives above reproach. Because of her, I can hold my head high. I can be the man I want to be without feeling undeserving. I can never resent Yasmine for that. She’s the reason I can love at all, that I know I will never be like Timmy Gleason because his blood isn’t running through my veins.”
“Rightly stated, Robert! But is it at all possible that you’re confusing gratitude for love?”
“No.” He shook his head vigorously. “I love Yasmine. She’s smart, sexy, and desirable. I know our love is crazy, but it’s genuine. Sex with her is phenomenal, intense, and totally satisfying—the best for both of us. That’s not gratitude. That’s love. I can’t imagine myself with any other woman. She perfects me.”
Dr. West dropped her gaze to her notepad. Her fingers toyed with the ruffled collar of her purple blouse as two bright spots appeared on her cheeks.
Robert blinked with bemusement. Dr. West’s stalwart outer appearance did not reflect her inner personality at all. She was a kind, gentle soul who, instead of marrying and raising a family of her own, had made it her lifetime mission to help bring healing to the wounded souls and hearts around her. But watching her reaction now, Robert had to wonder if she was a virgin in addition to being a spinster.
This was the first time he’d ever discussed his sex life with her, and from her uneasiness, he knew it would be the last. No need to get her old engine revving if she had nowhere to go, nor anyone to ride along with her. There was nothing more frustrating than getting all hot and bothered and having no one but Madam Fist, or in Dr. West’s case, a King George to put out the fire.
“Apart from the—um—optimum sex,” Dr. West said, meeting his gaze again, “what else about Yasmine attracts you?”
“Yasmine reminds me of my mother—loyal, trustworthy, strong, and independent.” A warm glow filtered through his chest as bits of his childhood conversation he’d had with his father at the garage flashed across his mind. “My mother had to have been strong in order to protect Michelle and me from Timmy Gleason. That’s the kind of mother I want for my children, one who would make sacrifices for them.”
“How can you be certain Yasmine would make sacrifices for her children?”
“She took in my destitute sister—twice—when she herself didn’t have much. She never asked her to pay rent once, and she fed her.” He paused as a dichotomous wave of bliss and betrayal seized him. Bliss, because Yasmine and he had just begun seeing each other, and betrayal because his sister had been at the lowest point in her life when she’d moved back in with Yasmine.
Robert cleared his throat. “I’ve watched Yasmine with her nephew for years before she became a successful attorney, back when she was temping and waitressing to put herself through school. She used to deny herself to provide for him when his parents were going through hard times. I have no doubt that she would be an excellent mother, like mine was.”
As Dr. West scribbled on her pad, Robert stared out the window at the bobbing trees again as he recalled that horrible night his mother had come back from her walk with that strange, mean man. She was crying as the man barked at her to pack her and her little boy’s clothes and gather everything of value in the apartment.
His parents didn’t have much, but his mom had a few pieces of jewelry his father had given her over the years. The man had stuffed the jewelry into his pocket, then forced Robert and his mother from the only home they’d ever known. Over a period of weeks, Timmy had made them hop one bus after another until they reached Manchester, New Hampshire, where he ran out of money.
For a while, they’d walked the streets by day while Timmy tried to find work, and by night they’d eaten and slept at a homeless shelter. After Timmy found his first of many menial jobs at a tire shop, they’d lived in a smoky motel room for a few months before moving into their first of many rundown apartments in inner-city Manchester.
Those were the facts Robert had remembered as he’d grown into a man. What he’d suppressed, killed, hidden away was the image and identity of his real father—the muscular, tall man with a mop of soft black hair on his head, and a face that seemed to be always smiling—the man who’d been in his life up until that strange night.
During a hypnotherapy session, Robert had recalled lying in bed under an open window with the hum of a box fan pushing cool air around the room. He’d remembered hearing his parents talking and laughing in the alley below. Some nights after putting him to bed, they would leave their second-floor apartment and take a walk around the building to sit directly below his bedroom—their time alone after a hard day’s work.
They always stayed within hearing range, and often shouted up at him to go to sleep when he tried to engage them in conversation. They’d shouted up at him that night, and after much coaxing, he’d climbed back into his bed and fallen asleep to the hushed voices of his parents beneath his bedroom window.
It was the last time Robert had heard his father’s voice.
Once Robert had recalled his lost memories, he’d been certain that Timmy had forced his parents away from the alley, probably at gun or knifepoint for reasons he would never know. What he did know for a fact was that they would never have wandered away from the building and left their little boy alone. They weren’t negligent parents.
Robert turned to find Dr. West had left her seat and was now standing at a corner table, filling a fresh glass with water. “Yes, my time is up.”
She smiled at him. “Perhaps we can make another appointment for later this week.”
“I’ll call your secretary,” he said, rising to his feet.
Her eyes twinkled in the lamplight. “You’ll figure out the right thing to do about Yasmine, Robert, and about your past. Just follow your heart.”
Robert nodded and left her office, his mind still unsettled.
Discovering that neither he nor Michelle was related to that scumbag should have been liberating for him, Robert thought, as he eased his car into the flow of traffic on East Broadway, the first leg of his drive back to Beacon Hill.
Contrarily, it had the reverse effect on him. He’d felt like a failure, for not remembering their real father while he and Michelle were growing up—almost starved and beaten to death, and left alone for days in the winter in an apartment that had no heat, while Timmy was out drinking and gambling his meager paycheck away. He felt guilty for not remembering and speaking up on his father’s behalf, for not avenging his murder and making Timmy Gleason pay for what he’d done to him.
That bastard should have been hung upside down by his balls. Instead, he’d had an easy out by dying from cirrhosis of the liver while waiting in jail to be tried for another ghastly crime—a crime that had ended Michelle and Erik’s secret marriage, and had almost destroyed his sister’s life.
Ironically, it was that second crime that had set Robert and Michelle on the path to discovering that they weren’t related to the man who’d been abusing them all their lives—thanks to Yasmine who’d been privy to a lot of outrageous real-life cases while she’d been studying criminal law. She had posed the possibility that Timmy might not be their father, seeing that neither he nor Michelle looked anything like him. It had set Robert thinking.
Timmy Gleason was short and stocky, while Michelle, Robert, and their mother were all unusually tall. Timmy’s nose was so flat, Robert used to wonder if air could pass through it, while, again, his and his sister’s were somewhat Grecian—a trait they’d inherited from their biological father, he’d later come to realize. Timmy’s eyes were gray while all the members of the Carter family had black and brown eyes.
Those were the divulging details he should have noticed while he was growing up, he thought as he flipped on his signal light and drifted on to Storrow Drive. But as Yasmine had stated, he was too busy taking care of Michelle to suspect anything out of the ordinary. He couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
Taking Yasmine’s advice, Robert had gone through some boxes of his mother’s belongings and found a letter from a woman, warning Timmy not to return to Virginia because the man he’d stabbed had died. The envelope had been addressed to Dwight Carter, but in the letter, she’d called him Timmy. Armed with the evidence, Robert had visited Timmy Gleason in jail, and left with a couple strands of his hair. A DNA test had confirmed that neither he nor Michelle was related to him.
Robert had immediately hired a detective to research his father’s death. He’d confirmed that Dwight Carter had died from multiple stab wounds to the chest, and that a woman who’d claimed to be his common-law wife had identified his body as that of Timmy Gleason, and then had him cremated. Robert was sure it was the same woman who’d written the note to Timmy twenty-five years earlier. Unfortunately she’d also been dead for years. He had no idea if his father’s ashes had been buried in a cemetery, scattered across Richmond, dumped into a trashcan, or flushed down a toilet.
And to add to his frustrations, further research revealed that Dwight Carter and his wife Violet had both been raised in foster care, making it damned near impossible for him and Michelle to trace their family heritage.
Robert pulled his car into the deeded parking space outside his front door, killed the engine, and sat staring at the rush of traffic and pedestrians going by. He’d dropped the investigation into his parents’ past lives around the time Michelle had given birth to Little Erik so he could concentrate on being there for his sister, and bonding with his new nephew and step-niece, Precious.
He’d meant to continue researching his roots when things settled down again, but it never seemed to be the right time. Or perhaps he’d been making excuses because he was afraid of the unknown. It was time he found out where he came from, whose blood was running through his veins. He needed to test Dr. West’s theory that he’d been blaming Yasmine for their dormant relationship. Hopefully once the mystery of his obscured past was revealed, he’d be more optimistic about moving from his latent present, and into a satisfying future with the love of his life.
Loving Yasmine was easy, fulfilling and delightful, and he knew in his heart and gut that they were right for each other. But in the meantime, he would stay away from her, make her miss him, just a little.