"I've been a bad girl," Maritza McCalliff confided to her sister Lisa from her death bed.
"Oh, please." Out of respect for Maritza's dire condition, Lisa refrained from rolling her eyes. "You haven't been listening to Mark's propaganda again, have you?"
Mark didn't deserve a sweetheart like Maritza for a wife. While Lisa had never liked her brother-in-law, never more so than at this moment after he'd just stalked out of the room angry with his wife as if it were her fault she was about to die and leave him, Lisa couldn't fault the man for his joy over his new son. Through the window, she watched the big ex-commando cradle the infant in his arms, his face full of pride.
When he jarred the baby a little too roughly, she winced and returned her attention to her sister. Lisa smoothed back Maritza's damp hair from her forehead. The labor had lasted too long and had left her weak and frail looking.
"You're a great wife."
"But not so loyal."
"Oh, come on. You defend Mark even when you know he's wrong."
"And I'll never be a good mother."
"Of course you will."
Maritza eyed her calmly and bravely. "Sis, the doctor was square with me. I'm not going to live long enough to raise my son. Let's not waste our last minutes together, or lie about the mess I've made of my life. I need your help."
"You got it." Lisa squeezed her sister's hand and tried to hold back tears. Apparently the doctor had told Maritza about the internal hemorrhaging, the bleeding that they couldn't stop.
"I don't trust Mark to raise my son."
What? Lisa totally agreed with her sister's assessment but had never expected Maritza to say the words. Mark might have enough charm to fool casual acquaintances, but they both knew all too well that Maritza's husband was controlling and short-temperedespecially after he'd been drinking. "What are you saying?"
"My son was not born early."
"I fudged the dates so Mark would think he's the father."
Oh . . . my . . . God! Her sister's news stunned and shocked and actually pleased her. Not that Lisa believed adultery was a good thing. She didn't. But unusual circumstances called for atypical actions. Mark wasn't the worst of husbands, but he came close. He drank too much alcohol, verbally abused her sister and tried to disrupt her career, making her life sheer hell. Lisa feared the day the verbal abuse would explode into violence. She'd begged Maritza to leave the man, but her sister had been determined to stick to her wedding vows. Yet, somehow saintly Maritza had summoned up the courage to find a little happiness outside of her miserable marriage, and Lisa couldn't fault her for it.
"I'm glad that bastard isn't the father of your son."
"My baby's real father is Brody Adams."
"Brody Adams?" Lisa didn't know the man but the name sounded familiar.
"The man who owns the land in Colorado where we wanted to dig," Maritza reminded her.
"You met him?"
"When he refused the University permission to send our team to the dig, I thought I'd try a little old-fashioned persuasion."
"So you slept with him?" Lisa couldn't hold back her astonishment.
Maritza was a dedicated archeologist, a valued member of Lisa's team, and she'd never thought her sister would do anything so outlandish. While Lisa had always been too busy studying to take much notice of the opposite sex, her sister had always made time for friends and social activities.
"It wasn't like that. I arranged to meet Brody at a party while Mark was out west investigating that divorce case for his PI firm. Brody was kind to me. Big and strong and so gentle. He was the handsomest man there and had his pick of the ladies, yet he danced with lots of older women, especially the widows who came alone. Later, we talked and I never got around to asking him for permission to dig on his land. He was so caring and I had a few drinks. One thing led to another . . ."
"You needn't explain." Lisa didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She'd never have expected her do-it-by-the-book sister to contact the Colorado rancher, nevermind sleep with him.
"I want you to understand, Sis. Brody doesn't know I'm connected to the University. He doesn't know I'm married. I didn't even tell him my last name. I heard he looked for me the next morning, but I'd already panicked and fled. And he never knew about my pregnancy, either. He returned to Colorado and went about his business. His address is in my purse."
"I'll get it." Lisa kept her voice steady but her hands shook. That had sister had kept these revelations secret shocked her so much that she wondered if she'd ever really known her sister at alland now it was too late.
"It was easier to let Mark believe the child was his." Maritza shuddered. "My Mark has a mean streak when he drinks."
And he always drinks. "I know."
When Mark drank, he blamed everyone else for his shortcomings and failures. According to him he'd been dishonorably discharged from the Army because his sergeant had been jealous of the way his wife looked at Mark, but Lisa suspected Mark hadn't been able to control his drinking.
"Promise me that you'll take my son to his real father."
Lisa stuffed the precious paper with Brody Adams' name, address and phone number into her bra. "Consider it done."
"And you watch out for Mark. He's meaner than a rattle snake about to strike."
"Don't you worry about him." Mark might be mean but he always screwed up.
"You'll like Brody Adams, Sis."
Maritza's skin had paled to a translucent white. Her hand that held Lisa's grew cold. But Maritza smiled, lost in her memories. "I wish I'd met Brody first."
"If he doesn't want your son, I'll raise the boy myself," Lisa promised, wondering how she would accomplish that promise.
Maritza shook her head. "An archeological dig is no place for a child. That's why I ended my field work to do theoretical research."
Lisa thought of the dirt, the sharp digging tools, the often uncooperative weather. Hell, she had no idea how to take care of a baby in a clean and baby-proofed two bedroom, two bath house with a white picket fenceand Maritza knew it. "I'll manage somehow."
She forced a smile. "You know me. I'll check out a few library books. Do some research on child rearing. I'm good at research."
"I know. But I imagine a family man like Brody will want his child." Her sister's voice grew weaker. "I hope my son gets your height, not mine."
Lisa stood just shy of six feet tall and she possessed gorgeous red hair that matched her temper, but, she lacked people skills which her sister had in spades. "And you got the big heart." Which was why it had been so easy for Mark to take advantage of Maritza. She'd once told Lisa that Mark had been abused by his father and knew no other way to behave.
Sad. But Maritza had made his problems her problems, and she paid the price with her unhappiness.
"My son's going to get a good heart from both sides of the family. His father was special."
Lisa bit her tongue. Now was not the time to argue over Maritza's judgment in menespecially a man she'd known for just one night.
Lisa watched the nurse take the baby from Mark and place him back in the crib. "He's beautiful." She blinked back tears, realizing that Maritza would never see him sit or laugh or walk. Never see him celebrate his first birthday. Never see him ride his first tricycle or go on a first date.
"Do you have a name picked out?"
Her sister grabbed her wrist with insistent strength. "Let his real daddy name him."
"Yes." Her grasp weakened.
Maritza was barely holding on. Her eyelids kept fluttering closed. "What about the birth certificate?"
"I told the nurse it could wait."
"All right." Naming the baby could wait.
"Tell Brody to . . . love . . . our son . . . for both of us."
"I will." She forced words past the lump of grief in her throat. "And the baby will have me, too. I promise."
But her sister didn't hear her talking over her tears. She was gone.