Julian turned away from the computer to meet his wife’s gaze. Eve’s one word summed up everything they spent the last hour in her office poring over from the moment Mason delivered the file and left them to digest what it meant. Facts, facts, and more facts, all laid out before them in black and white and 32-bit color. How the detective managed to get his hands on Alistair’s CD’s was a mystery, but what was no longer a mystery was the lengths his father had gone to keep their firstborn son hidden in clear sight of them for over two and a half decades.
“Alistair is more of a monster than I ever knew,” Julian said, turning back to the computer and clicking off the screen.
Ethan was his son, his son with the love of his life. A son he loved and raised for years, and just tossed away like he didn’t matter, because of a lie. The pleasure Alistair had to get that from that. Guilt and shame delivered a one-two punch to Julian’s gut. How would he ever come to terms with what he’d done?
“Tell me what’s on your mind,” Eve said, brushing her fingertips against his temple.
Julian shrugged. “Where do I start?” He trudged over to the couch and sat. From the moment Mason said Ethan was his son, guilt dripped into his system like a slow moving poison. Then, he looked into the face of Ethan’s little girl. His beautiful granddaughter, and he knew, and the poison of guilt ran rampant. Just as he’d hurt Eve all those years before, he hurt Ethan, their son. And just like back then, he didn’t want to, but he did it anyway. Because he was weak, and Alistair insisted. “This is my fault.”
Eve shook her head. “Oh, no. No, no, no.” She joined him on the couch and took his hand. “Don’t you dare blame yourself for this.”
“Why not? I know you love me, Eve, but you have to admit, none of this would have happened if I had been stronger. If I hadn’t given in to Father’s threats to cut me off financially and stayed with you like I wanted, we would have raised our son together, and he wouldn’t be fighting for his life right now. A life that’s been a lie from day one. God!” He shot up from the couch and stomped over to the desk. He picked up the file and then slammed it back down. “I didn’t gave a damn about Ivy, but I loved Ethan. I loved him. I should have known there was a part of you in him. How could I not know? Damn it!”
“You know what, Julian, you’re right!”
Julian turned around at the abrupt change in Eve’s tone. Anger flashed in her eyes as she stalked over. Julian blinked from the sudden change in her demeanor. What happened to the understanding, supportive Eve from moments before? Part of him didn’t want her understanding because he didn’t feel he deserved it, but at the same time, another part of him needed to know she didn’t find him as despicable as he found himself.
“I’m right?” he said.
“Yes! Everything that’s happened is you fault. It’s all your fault!” She propped her hands on her hips, her gaze intense, probing, as she stared him down. “That’s what you want me to say, right?”
Reverse psychology. He should have known.
Julian lowered his head as guilt continued to ravish him body and soul. “You don’t understand, Eve,” he said.
“Oh, I understand perfectly!” She clasped his face between her hands, forcing him to meet her gaze. “Listen to me. We’ve all made mistakes, all of us, but this is not your fault, and now is not the time for you to drown yourself in misplaced guilt. There’s no way you could have known. No one knew. Alistair is twisted. We have to deal with this. We need to tell Ivy and Sam.”
“Ivy.” Julian sat on the edge of the desk. “How are we going to tell her this?”
Eve rested her head on his shoulder. “I don’t know,” she answered, linking her arm with his. “God knows she isn’t one of my favorite people, but this is going to kill her. The only right thing she’s ever done in her life is love Ethan.”
“Indeed.” Julian rubbed his chin. His heart went out to Ivy, but a small part of him got a perverse sense of pleasure in this. Ivy lied to him about Ethan being his son, but irony of all ironies, Ethan was his son, and not hers. The son she loved and showered endless attention upon wasn’t her lovechild with Sam Bennett, but his child with the love of his life. He didn’t know what devastate Ivy more, to learn Ethan wasn’t hers, or that he was his and Eve’s. “Would you hate me if I told you I don’t feel too awful bad for her?”
Eve gasped. She lifted her head from his shoulder. “Julian?”
“No, I’m shocked.” Her hand traveled up and down his arm as she continued. “You’re a compassionate man. Ivy has hurt you, she’s hurt both of us, but I can’t believe you don’t feel bad for her.”
“I do empathize for her, but I would feel a lot more if Ivy had been truthful from the beginning. Eve, she lied to me about Ethan’s paternity. I disowned him because I found out he wasn’t mine.”
“No, Julian, you disowned him because you were hurt. You loved him, and you were told he wasn’t yours so you lashed out. Yes, Ivy was wrong to lie to you, but Alistair—he lied to everybody. He knew the truth, and he demanded you treat Ethan the way you did. He fanned your pain and anger as part of his warped plan. Ivy’s child wasn’t yours, but Ethan was yours and not Ivy’s. Julian, she’s as much a victim as you are. This news is going to destroy her.”
“Good. Now she’ll know how I felt when I learned Ethan wasn’t mine.”
Eve uncoiled her arm from his. “Julian.”
He hated that admonishing tone in her voice, but he couldn’t help how he felt. “It’s the truth, Eve. Ivy should get comfort in knowing she learned this truth soon after we did, unlike her twenty plus years of silence.” Julian folded the file and placed it in his pocket. “We’ve been gone long enough,” he said, taking her hand. “Let’s go check on our son.”
They made it back to the waiting room just in time to see a doctor in green surgical scrubs walk out of a huddle with Ivy, Sam, and Grace. Julian squeezed Eve’s fear-chilled hand as they hastened over. “What did the doctor say?” he asked.
Ivy scowled at him before burying her tear-stained face in Sam’s chest.
“Will somebody answer me?” Julian demanded.
Grace touched Eve shoulder and motioned for them to follow her to another corner. Eve wasted no time questioning her friend once they made it to their destination.
“What is it, Grace?” Eve asked, her voice as shaky as her icy hand. “What did the doctor say?”
“The surgery is over,” Grace said, glancing over at Sam as he continued to comfort Ivy. The woman pulled her anguished gaze from her husband and focused on Eve. “They had to relieve pressure from Ethan’s brain. There is some swelling and the doctors aren’t sure if the damage is going to be permanent.”
Tears welled in Eve’s eyes. “Julian,” she murmured.
Julian pulled her close in his arms and pressed a kiss to her temple. “He’s strong, Eve. He’s going to be okay,” Julian assured her, saying the words as much for his distraught wife as he was for himself. Ethan had to be okay. They just found him. They couldn’t lose him now. “What else did the doctor say, Grace?”
“He said the next seventy-two hours are crucial. Ethan is being moved from recovery now, and Ivy and Sam will be allowed to see him as soon as the doctor comes back.” Grace looked from Eve to Julian. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What’s going on here? Eve, I know you care about Ethan, but why are you so upset? T.C. was in the same accident and you’re showing more concern for Ethan than the father of your children. You haven’t even asked about Simone.”
Julian bit his tongue to keep from saying what he wanted about T.C. That madman’s erratic driving and uncontrollable temper is what brought them all to this hospital in the first place. The reason his son was fighting for his life.
He hunched his shoulders, hoping it would help alleviate his growing tension. He didn’t give a damn about T.C. Russell, but the man was the father of Eve’s girls, and if for only the sake of Eve and Simone, he would be civil.
Eve looked around. “Where is Simone?” she asked between sniffles. “Where did everybody go?”
“Dylan got Simone to go to along with him to the cafeteria for some tea. T.C. is still in surgery, and Liz went off to find out what she could. Rebecca is with Gwen. She’s critical but stable.”
“That’s good news,” Eve said, rubbing Julian’s hand. “And the baby?”
“She’s doing fine.” Grace folded her arms. “What’s going on with you two?” she asked, glancing from one to the other before fixing her attention on Eve. “Last night you could barely stand to be in the same room with Julian, and now…”
“Grace, it’s a long story, and one we’ll be happy to explain once we know Ethan is going to be okay.”
“Once you know Ethan is—”
“Here’s the doctor, Eve,” Julian said, breaking Grace off and ushering Eve to where the doctor met up with Sam and Ivy. “We want to see Ethan.”
Ivy glared at him through glassy, red-streaked eyes. “Nobody cares what you want, Julian! You treated Ethan like dirt!” she fired back, swiping the tears from her cheeks. “His condition is none of your business, and you will not see him.” She glared at Eve. “Neither of you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Ivy. Eve and I will see Ethan.”
The doctor’s pager went off. “You all work this out among yourselves, just don’t take this tension into that room. I have another emergency,” he said, racing off down the corridor.
“Eve, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you only immediate family members can go into CICU,” Sam pointed out. “I appreciate your concern for Ethan, but you’re on leave from the hospital right now, and you’re not his family.”
“But I am, Sam. Julian and I—we are Ethan’s family,” Eve told him. “We don’t mind you and Ivy seeing him, but we have to see him first.”
Ivy shook her head. “My God, married to Julian for two days and you’ve already lost your mind.” Derisive laughter followed her words. She waved her hands in a dismissive gesture. “You know what, I don’t have time for this. I’m going to see my son. Let’s go, Sam.”
“Damn it, Ivy, you listen!” Julian shouted at the woman’s retreating back. “Ethan is not your son!”
The clacking of heels ceased. Ivy turned with a jerk. “What did you say?”
“I said he’s not your son,” he repeated softer. There was no way to dull this blow, so he was going to give it to her straight. “Father knew the baby you were carrying wasn’t mine. When Eve had our baby and he came out fair, passable, Alistair decided a true Crane, with the misfortune of being black, was better than a Bennett bastard. So, he switched the babies.”
“My God, Julian, do you stay awake nights trying to find ways to hurt me because I lied to you about Ethan? Clearly, you must, because this is a doozy.”
Eve stepped forward. “This isn’t about hurting you, Ivy,” she said. “It’s about you knowing the truth. Alistair did this. Ethan never meant anything to him because he was mine. A little black baby with a built-in disguise. Who would guess? This was his plan.”
“Listen to her,” Julian continued. “Father knew the truth about your child’s paternity would come out eventually, so what better way to hurt all of us than to have me disown him. My son with Eve, the woman I loved, and what you thought was your beloved son with Bennett. He would never have anything, and he would be humiliated, as would you. And Eve and I would remain clueless about his identity while remaining in constant contact with him. It’s the ultimate cruel joke.”
Ivy rushed him. Her fist pummeled his chest like a dozen little bee stings. “No! No! That’s a damned lie! You take it back, Julian!”
He grabbed her flying hands. “I can’t take back the truth,” Julian said, restraining her with enough force to keep her away without causing bodily harm. Ivy broke away as Sam came to her rescue. His chest muffled her tortured cries. The man’s angry gaze settled on Julian. The hate in the Sam’s eyes didn’t bother him. He didn’t expect anything less.
Eve slipped her hands around his. “Are you okay?” she whispered.
“Physically, I’m fine, but are any of us really okay?”
Eve shook her head. “I guess not.”
“Do you see how upset she is? How can you be so cold?” Sam barked. “Julian, nothing you do surprises me, but Eve… How can you drop this on her at a time like this?” He continued to comfort the distraught Ivy as he belittled Eve. “Where are your feelings, your compassion?”
“This isn’t about being cold or about a right or wrong time, Sam. I didn’t do this out of malice. After all these years, I just want to be with my son.”
Julian draped his arm around Eve’s shoulder as he shot a dagger at Sam. “I think Sam knows that, my love, he’s just overwhelmed right now and not thinking straight. Isn’t that right, Sam?” he said, not attempting to hide the edge in his tone. Sam grunted, but said not a word. Julian drew a breath. “Listen, Bennett, Eve and I have been looking for our son for a long time, and now that we’ve found him and he’s fighting for his life, we won’t be kept away from him, and we won’t apologize for that! We told you this because you needed to know the truth.”
“Truth? This is no truth!” Ivy peeled her face from Sam’s tear-soaked shirt. “Ethan is mine! Eve can’t be his mother. She can’t! Alistair is a cruel bastard, but he couldn’t do something like this. It’s just—it’s impossible.”
“It’s very possible, Ivy, because he did do it! Ethan is my son with
Eve, and father made you raise him and love him as punishment for
trying to get one over on the family.” Julian pulled the file from his
pocket and dropped in an empty chair in front of him. “It’s all in
there, every sordid detail. The hows and whys of it all. I know this
hurts, but we’ve all had our share of pain, and Eve and I will not be
kept from our son a minute longer.” He gave Eve’s hand a squeeze and
looked to the door leading to CICU. “Now, if you’ll both excuse us,
we’re going to see Ethan.”